Christopher Dresser: the First Industrial DesignerFitness Equipment
Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) can be regarded as the first true industrial designer. He championed design reform in 19th century Britain and embraced modern manufacturing. Dresser was also a pioneer of the Modernist aesthetic. Dresser’s products were radical for their time, and some of them are still in production today.
Dresser was born in Glasgow in 1834 to a non-conformist family. At the age of 13, he won a place at the Government School of Design at Somerset House. This was a new system of artistic training that was meant to raise the standards of British design by uniting the disciplines of art and science. During this peiod, Dresser came into contact with many important design reformers, including Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Owen Jones, author of The Grammar of Ornament.
When he left the college in 1854, Dresser became a lecturer in botany, but began turning his attention to design. He established a studio at his home in St Peter Square, Hammersmith. Dresser’s knowledge of botany had a profound influence on his design work. He felt that nothing is superfluous in nature: everything had clarity of function. Dresser applied these principle to design, which explains why he is regarded as a pioneer of Modernism. He created abstracted reinterpretations of natural forms and historical patterns. He produced designs for wallpapers and fabrics, and ceramics for manufacturers such as Minton and Josiah Wedgwood.
He received a doctorate from the University of Jena for his contribution to botanical science.
As well as working as a designer, Dresser acted as an advisor to manufacturers. Buoyed by his success, he declared that ‘as an ornamentalist I have much the largest practice in the kingdom’ and produced designs for wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, ceramics and metalware. He moved into a large house in the fashionable Campden Hill area of London in 1869. He also worked as an author and teacher. Addressing the Royal Society of Arts in 1871 he argued: ‘True ornamentation is of purely mental origin, and consists of symbolised imagination only . . . Ornamentation is even a higher art than that practised by the pictorial artist, as it is of wholly mental origin.’
Dresser was a devotee of Japanese culture and inspired the craze for Japanese artefacts that swept through artistic circles in the 1880s. In 1876, he was commissioned to visit Japan in order to view its craft techniques for the UK government. Tiffany also commissioned Dresser to collect Japanese goods. As well as lecturing about Japan and Japanese craft techniques, he published a book called Japan, Its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures in 1882.
Toast Rack, 1881
As the Victorian middle classes were enthusiastically furnishing their homes, Dresser designed all pieces needed for the family table: serving dishes, claret jugs, tea services, toast racks, candlesticks and cruet sets. In the late 1870s, he was commissioned to design silver and electroplate for Hukin & Heath of Birmingham and for James Dixon & Sons of Sheffield . His clear, geometric forms revealed the influence of Japanese silverware and economy in the use of materials. Dresser also became adept at utilising standardised components for handles and lids to reduce costs for manufacturers.
Throughout his career, Dresser strove to produce the best possible design using new industrial processes. His belief in technology, at a time when many British designers and craftsmen feared the advent of the machine, led the way for future designers.
Whiteway, M. (ed) (2004) Christopher Dresser: A Design Revolution. V&A Publications.
Halén, W. (1990) Christopher Dresser. Phaidon.
Durant, S. (1993) Christopher Dresser. London and Berlin.