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 passionate early environmentalist, and his works were characterized by a design vocabulary drawn from both European and Middle Eastern historical fabric designs.
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 and leads the textile installation program both within the department and throughout the museum. Her current exhibition at the museum, Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty, is on view until June 13, 2022. Her next exhibition, Fabricating Fashion, will open at the Art Institute later this year.
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. In addition to teaching for NYU, the Bard Graduate Center and CUNY”s Graduate Center, Watt also organized a series of small, focused textile installations that covered a diverse range of topics including women’s embroideries, Renaissance velvets, 18th century menswear fabrics, and the textiles and wallpapers of William Morris.