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BUYERS GUIDE


In 1880 Dresser was appointed art manager for the newly established Art Furnishers’ Alliance, founded to, “…carry on the business of manufacturing, buying and selling high-class goods of artistic design”. A shop was opened at 157 New Bond Street, London, supplying, “…everything for the home” with all items either designed or approved by Dresser. This was the pinnacle of Dresser’s design career and the Alliance had financial backing from most of his manufacturers, including A. Lasenby Liberty, founder of the Liberty store.


Despite positive reviews, the Alliance went into liquidation in 1883. It is thought that the initial capital was inefficient to fund the project and that the design of the wares was too advanced in taste for the time. Liberty acquired most of the stock and assumed the Alliance’s role as the leading retailer of “modern taste”. Dresser returned to designing surface pattern for manufacturers, mostly for textiles and wallpapers.


Dresser also became a passionate advocate of Japanese culture and was partly responsible for the cult of Japan that raged through Western artistic circles during the 1880s. In 1876, he became the first European designer to be commissioned to visit Japan, which had reopened its borders in 1854, in order to view craft and manufacturing techniques for the UK government.


Much of Dresser’s most influential work was produced from the late 1870s when he worked increasingly as an adviser and designer to smaller firms, which allowed him greater control over a range of products. While he still provided designs anonymously, his stature was so great that many manufacturers now used Dresser’s name as a marketing ploy. The ceramics he designed for the Linthorpe Art Pottery had a facsimile signature impressed on the base. Some of his electro-plate designs for Hukin & Heath bore the mark Designed by Dr C. Dresser and the modest tin wares produced by Richard Perry, Son & Co., were marked Dr Dresser’s design.


At a time when the fast-expanding Victorian middle classes were enthusiastically furnishing their homes, Dresser designed all the effects necessary for the family table: claret jugs; tea services; serving dishes; toast racks; candlesticks; and cruet sets. He received contracts to design silver and electroplate for Hukin & Heath of Birmingham and for James Dixon & Sons of Sheffield in the late 1870s.


Dresser’s designs were radical in the context of a period when many designs combined a heady mix of cultures and periods with the highly decorative Rococo revival style dominating silverware. His reduced, geometric forms revealed the influence of Japanese and Islamic silverware and a desire to be economic with the use of costly materials. Maintaining an acute awareness of function, Dresser also became adept at utilising standardised components for handles and lids to reduce costs for manufacturers.


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Although he never regained the renown of the early 1880s, Dresser continued to run his studio and produced designs for another 20 years until his death in 1904. His achievements were great, not only in his fresh and exciting body of work, but also in his total commitment to and understanding of machine manufacturing. Christopher Dresser strove to produce the best design he could using industrial processes and this confidence in new technology led the way for future designers.


Towards the end of Christopher Dresser’s life, a tribute appeared in an 1899 issue of Studio magazine describing him as, “Perhaps the greatest of commercial designers, imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry.”


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