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Design Reform & The Aesthetic Movement

Textile design by Christopher Dresser

In Britain throughout much of the nineteenth century, a great debate on design and manufacturing engaged artists, industrialists, and consumers alike. The increase in manufacturing productivity created by the Industrial Revolution had given birth to a new middle class with the economic power to purchase the abundance of products being made. But this glut of manufactured goods had resulted in a decline in production quality. In 1836 the Parliamentary Select Committee on Art and Manufactures reported on the potential economic impact on trade – triggering the establishment of Government Schools of Design. Little immediate change was seen, with the British exhibits at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London unleashing a new wave of criticism directed at the low standards of design in domestic furnishings.


Among the critics were the designer and educator Henry Cole, the artist Richard Redgrave, the artist, curator and educator George Wallis, and the ornamentalist and theorist Owen Jones. With the support of Prince Albert, they developed formal guidelines for modern design which were disseminated through the Schools of Design – thus initiating a reform of British design which gave rise to the Aesthetic movement and, with opposing principles, indirectly to the Arts and Crafts movement. Design Reform was an effort to apply a level of order and taste to the eclectic and excessive ornamentation of the Victorian era when a cacophony of colours and patterns were the norm. In the second half of the nineteenth century these views had gained momentum began to give way to a new approach to design. Of the designers of the time, Christopher Dresser is now considered as a leading figure within the British Aesthetic movement.

Design Reform is Born


The British government started taking active steps toward design reform in the 1830s. The Select Committee on Art and Manufactures had expressed concern that British-manufactured goods were lacking in quality as compared to the output of France and Germany, and that consequently, England risked losing the “export race.” The Committee, which was under the Board of Trade, sought to increase manufacturing exports by taking steps to improve the design and quality of products. They advocated for a "balance between beauty and utility" as well as designs that facilitated the manufacturing process. The economic argument calling for better design was joined by an aesthetic reaction against the rampant and indiscriminate use of ornamentation. The interest in design and its appropriate role in the industrial production of goods was sparked.

The committee recommended that schools of design should be established to provide suitable instruction in the application of art to industry. The first Government School of Design was the London school founded in 1837 – now the Royal College of Art. The first outside London was established in Manchester in 1838, followed by another eighteen in British cities between 1838 and 1851. These included the Glasgow Government School of Design founded in 1845 (changing its name to the Glasgow School of Art in 1853). These schools hoped to improve the quality of the country's product design through a system of education that provided training in design for industry. However, in 1849 a further Select Committee considered progress to be too slow. A survey of industrial firms found that only 20% of designers had been trained at a School of Design. There was concern that the schools were attracting the wrong kind of students, interested only in art as a pastime. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, British products were much criticised by advocates for design reform – further galvanising the debate. Critics included Owen Jones, who reported that many products showed "novelty without beauty, beauty without intelligence, and all work without faith". It was clear to reformers that more needed to be done.

Changes to the management structure together with significantly increased financial support resulted in new improved premises and facilities for the schools. Henry Cole, supported by design reformers, drew up a “National Course of Instruction” to be followed. Their mission was to instil three basic principles: first, that decoration is secondary to form; second, that form is dictated by function and the materials used; and third, that design should derive from historical English and non-Western ornament as well as plant and animal sources, distilled into simple, linear motifs. These principles were mounted on placards and hung in the classrooms of the Government Schools of Design. For example, one placard read: “The true office of Ornament is the decoration of Utility. Ornament, therefore, ought always to be secondary to Utility.”

Christopher Dresser – The First True Designer


A student at the London School of Design during this time was Christopher Dresser. The son of an excise officer from Yorkshire, Dresser was born in Glasgow where his father had been posted. After a few years, his father’s career took them to Stockton, Bandon, London and finally Halifax. It was in Bandon (County Cork) where Dresser received the bulk of his education prior to attending the London School of Design in 1847 at age 13. Dresser’s arrival at the school coincided with a re-evaluation of the school’s ideals. During the seven years that he studied at the school, Henry Cole and others sought to steer the school towards producing designers for industry. Encouragement was given to manufacturers to approach the School of Design for ideas and to sponsor prizes. Dresser’s name appears regularly as a prize winner for designs on silk and for ceramics. This gave the aspiring designer the chance to make valuable contacts in industry which he could later utilise. From the emphasis placed on design for industry at the School, as well as from his encounters with manufacturers, Dresser finished his studies with an acute awareness that design was a primary part of the manufacturing process.

At this time, the study of Botany was regarded as fundamental to the study of Ornamentation – thus Dresser enrolled at the School of Mines (now Imperial College). Completion of his studies coincided with the imminent arrival of his first son in 1854 – requiring Dresser to take up paid employment as lecturer in ‘Botany applied to Ornamentation’ at the School of Design. He soon extended his brief from botany as applied to ornamentation to botany as a science – publishing three books on botany during 1859 and 1860. In 1859, the University of Jena in Germany conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in absentia). In 1860 he delivered papers to the Royal Institute, London and was also appointed to a lectureship in Botany at the Medical School, St. Mary’s Hospital and then at the Royal Hospital, London. In 1860 Dresser was also accepted as a Fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and of the Linnean Society (Britain’s premier botanical society).

However, whilst pursuing a successful career in Botany, Dresser maintained his interest in design. In 1856 Owen Jones published his ‘Grammar of Ornament’ to which Dresser contributed plates on plants and flowers. In 1857 he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institute on the subject of ornamentation and, in the same year, wrote a series of articles on ‘Botany applied to Art Manufactures’ for the Art Journal. In 1860, his continued interest in design was to draw him away from botany – prompted by the London International Exhibition planned for 1862. Manufacturers had been urged to approach the Schools of Art and Design for help and advice – and Dresser soon became involved in responding to their requests. From this time, his work became increasingly directed towards providing designs for industry and less with pursuing his botanical career.

Preparations for the 1862 exhibition attracted several commissions for Dresser. By 1862 he had also published two books on decorative art as well as working in ceramics for Minton, in carpets for Jackson & Graham, and in wallpapers for Scott Cuthbertson, amongst others. It was around this time that Dresser’s design principles first clashed with those of John Ruskin (art critic) – a spark that likely added momentum to the Arts and Crafts movement. One notable influence on Dresser from exhibits at the 1862 Exhibition was an appreciation of Japanese decorative art seen in the display of Japanese forms – an appreciation that stayed with him for life and that was to become a core theme within Aestheticism. Through his associations in London, from preparations for the exhibition and from his time at the School of Design, together with his father’s business connections in Yorkshire, Dresser began to amass a large number of manufacturers for whom he completed designs. These covered ceramics, glass, metalware, wallpapers, floorcoverings, textiles, furniture and graphic design. Dresser was also commissioned as an interior decorator, designing complete interiors including furniture and furnishings. His reputation in Britain grew and then extended to France – previously perceived as the obvious place to seek good design.

The abridged list of firms for which Dresser completed known designs for over his career included (in ceramics) Linthorpe Pottery, Minton, Wedgwood, Ault Faience, Old Hall Porcelain, (in glass) James Couper’s Clutha range, (in metalware) James Dixon & Sons, Hukin & Heath, Elkington & Co, Deykin & Sons, Benham & Froud, Loveridge & Co, (in wallpapers) William Cook & Sons, Essex & Co, Jeffrey & Co, Lightbown Aspinall & Co, (in textiles) Barlow & Jones, (in floorcoverings) Brinton & Lewis, John Crossley & Sons, (in furniture) Thomas Knight, William Booty, as well as designs for Liberty of London. These are known either from being marked with his facsimile signature and/or from company records or Dresser’s own design books. However, he is also thought to have completed designs for several other firms where items were unmarked, and records no longer exist. Dresser’s body of work and influence clearly deserving of a more extensive account than is given here.

Other Influences on the Aesthetic Movement


Amongst the many arbiters of taste active in the mid-19th century, the ornamentalist and theorist Owen Jones was probably the most significant to the Aesthetic movement. Following studies at the Royal Academy Schools and an apprenticeship with the architect Louis Vuillamy, Jones had travelled throughout Europe, Egypt and Turkey. His studies came to be highly significant in the development of both his interest in ornament and his theories of flat pattern, geometry and polychromy. Jones was subsequently appointed as one of the Superintendents of Works for the Great Exhibition of 1851, with responsibility for the interior decoration of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace as well as the arrangement of the exhibits inside. This work enabled Jones to put his colour theories into practical use and brought Jones to the attention of the wider public. At the request of Cole, Jones embarked on the publication that was to become his most well known and most influential work, “The Grammar of Ornament” published in 1856. His intent was not to encourage others to copy or revive these older decorative arts, but to help designers make use of the underlying pattern and colour design principles within their own work.

Another influence on Victorian interior decoration, was the mounting information about health and hygiene with the recent discovery of “germs”. Edward William Godwin, another leading protagonist of the movement, deplored “fluff and dust” which he regarded as “two of the great enemies of life”. Although designing with cleanliness in mind, Godwin himself was heavily influenced by the arts of Japan and was among the first architect-designer to incorporate this (Japonism) influence in his designs. His Anglo-Japanese style of furniture, mostly executed with an ebonized finish, was designed for Dromore Castle and for his own use from 1867. Similar designs produced later by the firms of William Watt and Collinson & Lock also emphasised the stripped-down "Anglo-Japanese taste" pared of merely decorative touches. In the 1870s and 80s Godwin's designs could be found at Liberty and Co.; his wallpapers, printed textiles, tiles, "art furniture" and metalwork set the tone in houses of those with an artistic and progressive bent. Oscar Wilde was among his clients, describing him as "one of the most artistic spirits of this century".

Owen Jones 1856 (by Henry Wyndham Philips) - painted with his designs as backdrop
London School of Design 1843.jpg
Birmingham School of Design c1855.jpg
school of design student's work_copying
Christopher Dresser portrait.jpg
Minton Persian-style vase by Christopher
Abstraction of botanical forms from Dres
Leaves and Flowers From Nature No8 - pla
Designed by Dresser c1882-85
Clutha glass jug by james couper designe
great exhibition 1851 crystal palace int
owen jones the grammar of ornament title
Owen Jones the grammar of ornament persi

Principles of Aestheticism


The Aesthetic Movement (also Aestheticism or “Ornamental Aesthetic" art style) prominent in Europe during the late 19th century, supported the emphasis of aesthetic values more than social-political themes. As an intellectual movement it encompassed literature, fine art and music as well as the decorative arts. Art from this movement focused more on being beautiful rather than having a deeper meaning. The movement rejected outright revivalism and approached art and design as a multisensory experience. Following the dictum “art for art’s sake” and challenging the idea that art imitated life, Aestheticism, of which Godwin, James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde were the most prominent champions, quickly became fashionable among the avant-garde middle classes. It was related to other movements such as symbolism or decadence in France, or decadentismo in Italy, and is often considered as the British version of the same movement.

In ornamentation and design, the Aesthetic movement borrowed from contemporary trends (such as Japonism) as well as from designers of the time – such as Dresser and William Morris. Whilst Dresser actively supported the principle of “art for art’s sake”, this more ‘intellectual’ form of the Aesthetic movement ignores the earlier tenant of British Design Reform; ‘design for manufacture’ – enshrined in the reformers principles of “decoration as secondary to form” and “form as dictated by function and the materials used”. In designing for manufacture, Dresser was also driven by the ideal of bringing ‘beauty by design’ into the average Victorian home – not just for those with the wealth to buy the bespoke or handcrafted items produced by artists and artisans. This was a core difference between the British Aesthetic movement and the Arts and Crafts movement.

from the Principles of Decorative Design



The Design Reform movement of the second half of the 19th century laid the theoretical foundation for numerous designers and artistic enterprises which later would become advocates of the Art Nouveau movement. The reform movement however, never entirely achieved its goals. Instead of refining and reforming the plethora of Victorian styles, it created yet more styles from which the consumer could choose.


Its greatest legacy is perhaps the network of Government Schools of Design which today form the backbone of British Schools and Colleges of Art – with past alumnae including a rollcall of our renown artists and designers.

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