My Socialist Wallpaper
The Democratization of Design in the Age of Social Media
I fell in love during a London study abroad. Disappointingly, it was not with a fetching young footballer with an adorable accent and great hair. It was with a dead socialist, William Morris.
It was love at first sight. My nineteen-year-old eyes fixed upon an exquisite wallpaper hanging in the Hammersmith home of the nineteenth-century Renaissance man. Be still my heart. The pattern that wooed me, Pimpernel, is an ornate woodblock print that’s been enchanting countless others since its 1876 debut. It’s dazzling down to the smallest details. The tempestuous tangle of vine. A floral motif snaking its way through flowers, buoying them. The deeply rich greens and specular golds in the colorway. The texture of it, and the sheen. All of it spoke to me. I promised myself I’d someday hang it in my future home.
But when a famous Instagrammer put it in her house in 2021, suddenly, I no longer wanted it in mine.
Why did the thought of sharing this particular wallpaper put such a bitter taste in my mouth? Could I truly only find pleasure in exclusivity? And what would the man behind the design have to say about all of it?
Wallpaper is undeniably having a moment, with US sales projected to nearly double in the next five years. To the chagrin of resell-obsessed realtors nationwide, homeowners are craving a more permanent throwback to simpler times. Maybe we’ve realized we want the warmth of our grandmother’s walls. Maybe we’ve had enough “sad beige.” Whatever the reason, the nostalgia is real.
My wallpaper moment starts and ends with its most enduring designer, William Morris. Born in Essex in 1834, this celebrated triple-hyphenate—poet, philosopher, designer—is largely credited as the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, the influential design philosophy whose tenets and ethos would eventually pave the way for other twentieth-century architectural styles like the Bauhaus and prairie movements.
Our somewhat magical introduction occurred in 2003 at Kelmscott House, his former West London domicile turned museum. In its height, Kelmscott hosted all of London’s movers and shakers (including playwright George Bernard Shaw, who also described the house as magical). In this century, it’s an enchanting treasure trove that houses many of Morris’s outputs—from weavings to artistic treatises to furniture, plus a bounty of jaw-dropping wallpaper. I was a millennial kid in a Victorian candy store.
Most curiously of all, to round out his rather serried curriculum vitae, I learned Morris was an inveterate socialist, a literal poster boy for the cause. Wholly unaware at age nineteen that nineteenth-century socialism was actually fairly common, I resolved to further de-exoticize this unfamiliar political theory as I continued to consume his art.
There could be no disputation that his prints were ethereal, undisputed masterpieces, but I soon became equally intrigued by the designer himself and his theories on home and the democratization of art. It was clear to me even as a teen that my design preferences would be influenced by his works, but I could not have anticipated that his thinking about the place of art in a capitalist world would be so important in my homebuilding.
Anna Mason, a former curator at the William Morris Gallery and a leading expert on the arts and crafts movement, offers an explanation of his socialism as framed through his political agitations.
“He spoke out against the suppression of free speech, police brutality, class bias in the judicial system, the sexual exploitation of women and girls and the wanton destruction of the environment. The root of these evils, he argued, was a system driven by profit.”
This anti-capitalistic, anti-industrial movement of art that Morris encapsulated—what was it really all about? What did socialism mean to Morris, the philosopher? What did socialism mean to Morris, the man of letters? More curiously, how exactly did he square his deification of originality and craft with the class-busting commonality of socialism?
And selfishly, could I find vindication in his work for my petty irritation at the thought of sharing?
Born on the blistered heels of the industrial revolution, Morris eschewed mass-produced factory goods—soulless replicas without craft or beauty. He insisted life didn’t have to be sordid or unattractive, as he thought modern London living had become.
“What is there in modern life for the man who seeks beauty? Nothing,” Morris lamented. “The age is ugly.”
Morris exhibited this predilection for beauty from a very young age, often studying and sketching the flora and fauna native to his countryside village, a practice that undoubtedly would influence his future designs. Born into a wealthy family, Morris’s idyllic childhood offered a stark contrast to the early industrialism of the era—a Victorian economy running at full steam, apparently with no brakes. The market’s invisible hand seemed to fulfill the biblical dictum that “whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
Morris’s multiplying abundance was art, and he was somewhat insulated from the social issues of city dwellers. He nurtured his love of nature, combined with an intense interest in medieval literature, well into his late childhood, mostly unaware of the inequitable evils that plagued much of his homeland. But not for long.
By the time Morris went to study at Exeter College at Oxford—where he would refine his artistic talents and ignite a passion for political theory—John Stuart Mill had already published Principles of Political Economy. Charles Dickens was busy turning out novels that pointedly critiqued the huge gap between the wealthy (like the Morris family, whose fortune came from copper mining) and the poor (those who were doing the mining).
Morris proved an eager student and quickly became an admirer of political writers like John Ruskin and Christian socialist Charles Kingsley. As he continued to learn about the horrifying conditions of many laborers, his art began to entwine with his burgeoning politics.
“Art cannot have real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering,” Morris declared. “The contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable. Feeling this, I am bound to act for the destruction of the system which seems to me mere oppression.”
Though he despised the rampant inequality of his time, his political leanings were ultimately swayed as he considered that industrial life was appalling not only on moral grounds but also on artistic ones.
That smoggy, coal-smudged Dickensian image you have of 1800s London? That’s what Morris despised. Destitution butted up against the opulence that created it. A society sick with its own glut.
London had become a sore for sighted eyes.
Dark, dingy, and unsafe factories were altogether inhumane—and the inferior products they churned out were proof of it.
“Will you not be bewildered, as I am,” Morris pondered, “at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes—and sells?”
Morris would have despised the modern “big box” store aesthetic from a moralistic ground. He would have bought local, championed things of beauty and craft. He would have abhorred Amazon and been enthralled by Etsy. Been more Bernie Bro than Bezos Bro.
Buoyed by his early artistic successes, he boldly staked a claim in the political arts, focusing on building healthy creative communes where focus was placed on fine craftsmanship and the humans responsible for it.
“All the minor arts were in a state of complete degradation especially in England, and accordingly in 1861 with the conceited courage of a young man I set myself to reforming all that.”
This included shouting often and loudly against classism that led the poor toward sickness and destitution. Workers, Morris intoned, were not cogs in a machine, scraps of metal destined to sweat and die in poor working conditions in mills and factories. Laborers were people, human men and women with noble purposes to fulfill and art to make! Worthy of lore and veneration. And jobs. His socialism found practical expression as he routinely hired skilled craftsmen to work in his studios, his type foundry, his print shops, his workshops, and in his conservation efforts as he rebuilt many churches across the Continent.
Morris dreamed of a society based on trade and common good fulfillment, almost like a medieval-inspired commune. The litmus test of a healthy society shouldn’t be profit, he argued. It should be purposeful, meaningful work, and beauty. Always beauty.
“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed,” Morris lamented. “Art has remembered the people, because they created.”
Morris’s ideas were well received among the intelligentsia in the abstract, but whether they’d find tangible expression was another question. How, after all, can one preserve actual craft and technique in the face of an increasingly mass-produced market? How to realize these ideals?
Morris turned to his social circles to work out the practical application of his theories, which included a bouquet of pre-Raphaelite artists including Edward Burne Jones and Dante Gabrielle Rosetti. With their added endorsement it wasn’t long before Morris became the face of the newly formed Socialist League.
Morris’s brand of socialism was a sort of spiritual fervor and vision for humanity—spurred less by financial considerations and more by a protective love of art and nature. Seeing the very real threat modern industrial capitalism posed to both, he worked tirelessly to spread his ideas to both the rich and the poor.
Wielding increased public influence, he unleashed treatise after treatise, pamphlet after pamphlet on socialism, and many on art, which to him were inextricably linked. And though he saw the massive scale of profit-driven ugliness, he knew he’d only truly find success lurking in smaller, actionable ways.
He’d start with London.
Not quite small enough.
There it was. The home, the natural place to birth a utopia.
A home-centered, socialist-supported revolution.
Morris’s writings turned to a widespread reexamination of the very concept of home. In Lectures on Art and Industry he pondered, “If our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art, they are either wretched make-shifts, or what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”
Why shouldn’t we fill our homes with things of purpose and beauty? Morris wondered. Why should the plate we eat off be a less significant product than the accomplishment of a soldier?
“If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House,” Morris wrote.
“You may hang your walls with tapestry instead of whitewash or paper; or you may cover them with mosaic, or have them frescoed by a great painter,” he continued. “All this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty's sake, and not for show: it does not break our golden rule: Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
This emphasis on the beautiful home caught on. Morris rode this wave of enthusiasm into furniture design, founding the London firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. During his tenure at the firm, he designed his most iconic piece, the Morris chair, a comfortable wooden easy chair. These chairs required considerable handiwork and knowledge to construct and were customizable with many fabrics of Morris’s own hand, or those created by his daughter May.
They were also unpatented so that other craftsmen might build their own by hand, using Morris’s design as a blueprint and customizing their own details and woodwork.
In his patent-frenzied entrepreneurial era, the desire to “open source” his work was more than notable. It was revolutionary. He had very intentionally laid this ground for his democratization of art. If you can’t afford to pay someone to make you a Morris chair, here are the instructions: make your own—your home deserves it.
“What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?” Morris wrote to the editor of the Manchester Examiner in 1883.
He wasn’t just OK with people cribbing his work, he encouraged it.
The Morris chair became a staple not only in his native England but soon all over the world, and reproductions were attempted by top furniture houses in Europe and the United States and even by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.
Morris had made good on his promise to make beauty abundant and available to every kind of home, from estate houses to row houses—old money machines and the nouveau riche and the proletariat. He preached his brand of socialism into English society through art.
Having achieved his mission of freeing us from the tedium and impersonality of the machine, there remained still another philosophical question to answer: how can the beauty of our homes be unique, but common?
Six years after I fell in love with Morris, I fell in love with another man. I ended up marrying this one. As newlyweds, we scored our own unique piece of real estate—a 1910 bungalow rental with no air conditioning and tall ceilings and original molding. It was 850 square feet of charm. It wasn’t as grand as Morris’s Kelmscott House, but it was exactly one block from a donut shop. And it was ours. (The neighbors’ sewage that occasionally crept up from ancient pipes into our bathtub? Not ours.) When it was time to look for more space to accommodate our growing family, our realtor kept steering us toward new constructions, because people “in our demographic” “want to build.”
We didn’t. We could realistically afford a new construction in a new subdivision, but almost nothing about that was appealing. I was obnoxiously proud about wanting something other than white kitchens with matching walls. I genuinely gravitated toward things that felt unique, and snobbishly chided people who settled for what I considered boxy, soulless spaces. I dreamt of mature trees, the warmth of wood and a hint of history. I wanted art glass and oak and patina. I wanted a place of worship, basically an old church.
We ended up in a 1988 split-level.
It was in a great neighborhood close to everything, triangulated perfectly between Target, the library, and the freeway, at the end of a long cul-de-sac where our future children would roam wild and free. It still wasn’t our arts and crafts dreamhouse. But it boasted a brick chimney facade, colonial-style windows (OK, they were drafty), solid oak cabinetry, and good hygge. It would more than do, and we were lucky to have it.
Life around us was moving at top speed, but our decorating pace was glacial (it took us four years to hang our first picture). With one income and zero free time, our days were spent with back-to-back babies, the droughts and floods of self-employment, and more than a couple of literal floods from faulty plumbing. We had no means or energy to work on our house. We became incidental adherents of slow decorating.
Mid-pandemic, our social calendars suddenly cleared. Armed with funds from some careful savings goals, we decided to tackle a few home projects we’d told ourselves we’d “get around to.”
I knew what I wanted to do first. The wallpaper.
After years of fixing things out of necessity, it felt luxurious to think about doing a project that was purely aesthetic, whose sole purpose was to create beauty. And though it was a wallpaper print I’d loved for nearly two decades, I was also thrilled to hang something so special, such a unique expression of my soul. And something nobody else had.
I ordered the paper, and we blocked out a few months out to install it. Dusty dreams were at last materializing.
Then, to my anguish, during my sad ritual of late-night scrolling, I saw it. The Instagram-famous decorator posted a picture of her daughter’s newly designed bedroom. And there it was, peeking out from the adjacent bathroom. Pimpernel. She’d used the wallpaper. My wallpaper. In the same colorway.
I was unreasonably upset. I sent snarky text messages to two designer friends. All the feelings of “I found it first!” flooded in, along with worst-case-scenario self-pitying, “Great, now everyone is going to put that paper in their home!”
How could a man like Morris, after all, be OK with any of his work becoming so common as to live in every other Instagrammer’s home, his singular patterns potentially at risk of becoming the “live-laugh-love” of wall hangings? How could he possibly tolerate the image of his wallpaper being so casually “liked” to the point of an algorithm churning along toward its be-all and end-all of advertising revenue?
But then, the most terrible realization of all. I was doing the exact opposite of what Morris had preached. I wanted beauty for myself—but I was enraged at the idea of anyone else having it, too.
“I do not want art for a few,” Morris once wrote, “any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”
Morris would have been so disappointed with me. I was disappointed with me. For years he talked about democratizing art, and here I was, griping about sharing it and carrying on one-sided arguments with the woman who “discovered” him.
Instinctively, I know art is for everyone. Beauty belongs, as Morris knew, not only to the noblesse (or Insta-famous) but to the baker and the barber too. Even before I knew much about Morris, I appreciated these philosophies. Faced with some tough self-reflection, the question lingered. Do I still hang it? Or should I return it and try another of his more obscure prints?
“You loved it for fifteen years,” my interior designer friend said. “You should hang it. It’s yours.”
How strange it is to live in this time, an era where we know what everyone’s homes look like, homes we’ve never once set foot in. Our virtually connected culture has afforded us glimpses into the interior lives of the rich and famous and also regular folks across a wide demographic divide. We fill up our Pinterest boards with kitchens we love and gleefully judge the design choices made in those we don’t. The pressure to create a beautiful home can be smothering, but that doesn’t mean a beautiful home is an unworthy venture. There is real necessity in surrounding ourselves with soul-speaking art and artifacts.
For Morris, it was all about nature. His textiles reflect his love of flowers, plants, and the little creatures who inhabit them. His art was very personal to his upbringing and his tastes. And bless him, he had the generosity of spirit to share it with everyone.
I’d been adequately called to repentance but still wondered—what of originality? What of unique craftsmanship? There is virtue in diversity, after all. While we don’t need identical art, we do need to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of it wherever we are able. “The arts are necessary to the life of man,” Morris explained. Art is salvific.
Morris even went so far as to equate the end of art with the end of civilization. When it came to building his socialist utopia where class lines vanished and beauty reigned in each and every home, Morris knew and reiterated one important truth: we are only as beautiful as the worlds we create and share.
One gentrified house in the middle of a slum isn’t going to cut it, not in a utopia. Our communities should be full of art and expression, and one house in need of repair is in our collective interest to improve. Beauty, like kindness, multiplies on a broad scale.
Perhaps this is why walking along a small, well-kept neighborhood street is so satisfying, so joyful. Home after home that are connected through human intention and human labor make the world a lovely place. I suspect this is why we care so much about the walls that house us, the art that enlivens us. We’re not owed originality, but we owe it to each other to share the art that inspires us.
I hung the wallpaper in my front room that spring.
I feel joy every time I walk by it. I no longer care that it also hangs in the bathroom of a little girl I’ll never meet. I hope it brings her joy, too.
New visitors are quick to comment on it, and a good few prod me for details. They politely indulge me as I give them an excited (not brief) history, and they follow along when I ask them to come up close and inspect it. Put their hands on it, position their eyeline at the parallel, examine the textural pop and the way the light waltzes across the gold. I have no idea what they’re quietly thinking at this point, but I’m genuinely delighted I can share something so lovely.
If I’m lucky, I hear a small echo of Morris himself, musing quietly about the endless abundance of art:
“Speak not, move not, but listen, the sky—it’s full of gold.”
Adrienne Cardon is a poet, graphic designer, and author of And Still, Birth: Death and New Life in a Pandemic.
Art by William Morris.