The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris

It could be the result of keeping an unreasonably tidy house while it was on the market, or moving into a terrace with no wardrobe; or it could be the mountains of things that attach themselves to my children. Whatever the cause, lately I have been in the grip of a decluttering frenzy. I can’t do it fast enough.

As the packing boxes return from exile, I assess each item against the ‘useful or beautiful’ test, the interior styling dictum regularly invoked by home style magazines:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

This golden rule of housekeeping was first uttered by William Morris, a celebrated 19th century designer, entrepreneur and writer in a speech to an assembly of designers in Birmingham in 1880. It wasn’t offered as an styling tip so much as a call to arms in an ideological battle on the course of civilisation.

Morris wanted to inspire people to challenge the norms of a society that in its ‘hurrying blindness’ pursued wealth and economic growth at the expense of what he called ‘the beauty of life’.

Morris grew up in the age of industrialisation, seeing factories spring up in the cities and machine-based methods of production take hold. He regarded the jobs on the assembly lines as dehumanising, as:

the heaviest of all slaveries; that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil.

As a young man, Morris engaged an architect friend Philip Webb to design and build him and his new wife a family home, called Red House. Morris used this project as an opportunity to test the idea of a craft-based community, with his circle of friends working together to handcraft almost all the furnishings in the house.Philip_Webb's_Red_House_in_UptonRed House in Upton, Bexley Heath, Greater London

Through this experience Morris learned firsthand what science took another century to establish, that work if properly designed can be an inherently enjoyable and meaningful activity.

He set up an interiors company with his friends, determined to prove that it was possible for a business to make solid well-designed objects for the middle classes using traditional methods of craftsmanship. The difficulty was that quality goods made by artisans, if paid fairly,  would cost more than mass-produced goods made in factories. How would people pay for them?

Morris’s answer: by living a simple life. If people consumed less, they would have more money to spend on solid and durable goods that would not need to be replaced, saving them even more money in the long run.

If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

And if we apply that rule strictly, we shall … create a demand for real art, as the phrase goes; and in the second place, we shall surely have more money to pay for decent houses.

Morris believed education could change consumer behaviour and in turn drive demand for high quality, ethically made goods. But his message went largely unheeded for more than a century.

It is only now that there is growing consciousness of the need for mindful consumption as we come to terms with the environmental devastation wrought by industry and the exploitation of foreign workers in the supply chains of large corporations.

We can only imagine what Morris would make of the course of civilisation since that day, or how he would view his legacy. Morris & Co. fabrics, wallpapers and homewares are still in production, but they are high-end products out of reach for most middle-class customers.

If we take nothing else from his life and work, we can learn to consume more carefully, appreciate art and beauty – and keep our houses as he commanded.


Author: Rachel Linton

Psychologist, reader, writer from Sydney, Australia. On this blog I write about ideas from leading thinkers in a relatable way for our time. Enjoy xx

2 thoughts on “The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: