Members Only Programs

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Virtual Curator Talk:
Morris and Company: The making of an exhibition
Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 6:30 PM EDT

A virtual talk by Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) curator, Melinda Watt, about the exhibition, “Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty.”

Morris & Co. was founded just over 160 years ago, in 1861, by polymath William Morris. The company quickly became regarded for the original objects it designed and made for home interiors—handmade wallpapers, textiles, and furniture—and Morris (1834-96) is now known as the father of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. Morris was both an avid student of art history and devotee of the natural world, and his works were characterized by a design vocabulary drawn from both European and Middle Eastern historical fabric designs.

William Morris had many collaborators— included his wife Jane Burden Morris, younger daughter May Morris, artisan and designer John Henry Dearle, architect Philp Webb, as well as artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. This circle of friends considered themselves design reformers. They were on a mission to bring beauty back into the lives of their consumers through thoughtful design and production that foregrounded the agency of artisans and anti-industrial techniques. Accordingly, they experimented with dye recipes based on natural materials, revived hand-printing methods for fabrics and wallpapers, and reintroduced hand weaving for woven wool and silk textiles as well as pictorial tapestries.

The present exhibition at the Art Institute, which is the basis for this talk by curator Melinda Watt, comprises approximately 40 works, drawn primarily from the museum’s significant holdings, many of which were generously given to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. John Bryan and the Crab Tree Farm Foundation in 2018. These recent acquisitions and modern scholarship help to give a fuller picture of the artistic output of the company, especially as regards the work of May Morris (1862-1938). And although Morris & Co. closed its doors in 1940, the company’s aesthetic vision remains potent to this day through the continued reimagining and reworking of the textile and wallpaper designs. the exhibition explores that longevity, highlighting Morris & Co.’s design tenets and favored techniques as well as Chicago area sites where the work of Morris and his contemporaries appeared.

Melinda Watt has been Chair and Christa C. Mayer Thurman Curator of the Textile Department at the Art Institute of Chicago since 2018. In this role, she oversees the global textile collection formed by a series of visionary department heads, and leads the textile installation program both within the department and throughout the museum. Her first exhibition at the museum, Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty, is on view until June of 2022. Watt is also the current president of the Textile Society of America.

Previously, Melinda Watt was a Curator in the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as Supervising Curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center. She was a co-curator of Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1550-1800 (2013), and she organized an exhibition of the Museum’s collection of seventeenth-century embroidery at the Bard Graduate Center. The catalogue, English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1580-1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature, was awarded the Textile Society of America’s annual book award for 2008. She also organized a series of small, focused textile installations at the Metropolitan Museum. These projects covered a diverse range of topics including Renaissance velvets, 18th century menswear fabrics, and the textiles and wallpapers of William Morris. Her last exhibition at The Met was The Secret Life of Textiles: The Milton Sonday Archive, celebrating the former Cooper Hewitt curator’s extraordinary textile research archive, which was donated to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center.

Above: Gallery view of the exhibition “Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty,” The Art Institute of Chicago.
Left: Vine Leaf, design 1896. Designed by May Morris, produced by Morris & Co., London. Gift of Crab Tree Farm Foundation. The Art Institute of Chicago.