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David Mabb

Publication Date
  • Painting
  • Design
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Social Sciences


The 19th Century English wallpaper and fabric designer, poet and socialist William Morris thought that interior design had a fundamental role to play in the transformation of everyday life. This essentially political motivation - a commitment to the radical potential of design - is behind much of his work as a designer and craftsman and the setting up of Morris & Co. In English political life, he was known firstly as a member of the National Liberal League. As he moved leftwards he became a leading member of the Social Democratic Federation, and in 1883, he founded the Socialist League. This political work was an extension of his project of social transformation, as he increasingly recognised (with the help of Marx’s Das Kapital) that social change could not be achieved by design alone but required the revolutionary dismantling of capitalist industrial society by the organised working class. Morris’ designs constituted a radical break with the orthodoxy of neo-Gothic of his time. They are highly schematised representations of nature, where it is always summer and never winter; the plants are always in leaf, often flowering, with their fruits available in abundance, ripe for picking, and with no human labour in sight. This is a utopian vision, an image of Cokaygne, the medieval mythical land of plenty, easily acceptable to the middle classes. Today his work is seen as safe and comfortable, and his wallpaper and fabric designs are widely reproduced in machine printed form. They can be found in an array of domestic environments and uses, furnishing the bourgeois and conservative semis of middle England. Although a form of democratisation of Morris’ designs, their wide availability is also a debasement, as a compromise is made whereby what Morris called “beauty” is sacrificed for cheapness. Most of these machine printed wallpapers, fabrics and kitsch would have horrified Morris. He opposed industrialised production for both political and aesthetic reasons, and researched medieval forms of manufacture that used traditional craft skills, which he then developed to the highest technical standards. It is the space opened up by the contradictions between what Morris’ designs would have been and how they have subsequently come to be used and understood, that the paintings in this exhibition navigates. Variants Varvara Stepanova was a Russian Constructivist artist who designed textiles for the First State Cotton-Printing Factory in Moscow during 1923-24 along with Lyubov Popova. Christina Kiaer writes that they were the “only Constructivists to see their designs for everyday, utilitarian things (other than posters and publication graphics) actually mass-produced and distributed in the Soviet economy. They fulfilled the Constructivist brief of abandoning the role of individual artist-craftsman and entering into collective factory production as "artist-productivists" to produce utilitarian things for the socialist collective”. In the Variant series of paintings, copies of their textile designs have been painted onto mass produced William Morris wallpapers. The patterns come together to suggest a newly emergent utopian possibility, awaiting mass reproduction and the breach out of art into the everyday. Two Squares In Two Squares, a copy of El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares – A Suprematist Story from 1920-22 has been painted onto fourteen machine printed Morris wallpapers. Lissitzky’s About Two Squares is a short picture book for children that experiments with typography, image and narrative and tells a story about two squares, one red, one black which travel to earth from outer space and transform the world. Each Lissitzky image, including the cover and flyleaf of the book, is painted over different wallpaper, constructing a narrative dialogue between Lissitzky’s revolutionary narrative and Morris’ utopian visions of fecundity. Protest and Coloured Square Paintings In the Protest Paintings, the William Morris patterns have been moved to the edges, the traditional home of the decorative, to cover frames surrounding images of political slogans. The slogans might appear to be clichés, but the domesticating frames suggest the possibility of reading them afresh. However, the dialogue works both ways: the slogans shout out, radicalising the frames’ comfortableness. If the slogans in the Protest Paintings appear overly literal, the coloured squares in the Coloured Square Paintings appear evacuated of meaning, suggesting the postmodern appropriation of once experimental modernist form, wiped of its radical potential and reduced to a random selection from a colour chart. Each frame is made from the same Morris pattern but from a combination of different colourways and scales. This complex periphery reactivates the coloured squares. Again the dialogue works both ways: which is now more decorative, the frames or the squares? Together they question how visual language might articulate the possibility of political change.

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