Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser

Release Date: 
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser at Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

First full-scale retrospective on the career of a pioneer industrial designer
March 5, 2004 through July 25, 2004

In spring 2004, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will present Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser, the first full-scale museum retrospective of the works of a pioneer industrial designer and one of the most influential figures in design of the 19th century. Commemorating the centennial of Dresser’s death in 1904, the exhibition will feature over 300 major works from his diverse and extraordinary career and will be on view from March 5, 2004 through July 25, 2004. The retrospective will then travel to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, from September 9 to December 5, 2004.

This retrospective will explore the evolution of Dresser’s career —“shocking” in its extraordinary use of pattern, form, ornament, and materials — and highlight his innovative creations for more than 70 manufacturers. Dresser was particularly adept at working in a broad range of media, including fabric and wallpaper design, architectural ornamentation, furniture, glass, metalwork and ceramics. Joseph Holtzman, art director and editor in chief of nest, attests to the designer’s distinctive approach:

“Dresser married pure form and pioneering industrial design with an original and wonderful vocabulary of ornament. Isn’t that what we should be doing?” In his own time, Dresser was heralded by the design and architecture publication Building News as “one of the most active revolutionisers in decorative art of the day.” Dresser invented an eclectic vocabulary of design forms, drawing from myriad cultural sources----including Peruvian, Islamic, Abyssinian, and Far Eastern----and from his observations of nature and of the Japanese emphasis on form rather than ornament. His designs were heavily influenced by experimentation with pattern, symmetrical images, and geometric shapes, and his unique combination of materials and new production processes resulted in forms that are startlingly modern.

The exhibition will place significant emphasis on Dresser’s aesthetic theories, which were grounded in an astute understanding of science and a belief in industrial production techniques that called for a new method of composition. Among the objects on display will be the finest examples of his most ground-breaking designs, including a group of extraordinary teapots he designed for James Dixon & Sons in the late 1870s, which, to 21st century eyes appear as remarkable precursors of the Bauhaus metalwork designs of Marianne Brandt and Wolfgang Tümpel.

According to Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Warwick Thompson, “Dresser’s career was long eclipsed by the shadow of William Morris. Only with Nicholas Pevsner’s assessment in the 1930s did Christopher Dresser gain recognition, but it was not until the late 1970s that museums actively acquired Dresser’s work.” Up until the time of his death in 1904, Dresser’s studio was still providing designs to leading manufacturers. The impact of Dresser’s vision on design today is finally beginning to gain deserved recognition. Thompson says, “To our contemporary eyes, Dresser is undoubtedly the most interesting of late 19th century designers----and the one whose work bears the most relevance to our present-day concerns with production, form, materials and eclecticism.” Dresser’s legacy has been kept alive by generations of designers and collectors who have recognized the innovative spirit of his work and his radical approach to design.

“Dresser’s work has always been inspirational to me,” says designer, restaurateur and entrepreneur Terence Conran. “He was strongly committed to industrial production and was a breath of very fresh air in a Victorian world filled with gross, vulgar, over decorated pretentious design. It’s wonderful, a hundred years from his death, that he is getting the recognition that is so long overdue,” he added.

Dresser was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a period that gave rise to many features of modern society: large urban populations, a prosperous middle class, and the advent of modern consumer culture. Dresser capitalized on new technologies and mass production, using the inventions of the Industrial Revolution to make beautifully designed objects and interiors accessible to the burgeoning middle class. He was among the first designers to fully understand and embrace mass production, becoming integrally involved in the production process to ensure that the design would remain uncompromised. An 1898 issue of The Studio magazine observed that Dresser was “perhaps the greatest of commercial designers imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry.”

Christopher Dresser studied not only design, training in the government schools of design that had been established in the late 1830s, but also botany, receiving an honorary doctorate from Jena University in Germany. His extensive botanical studies influenced his design philosophy. His views on the inherent symmetry of plant formations helped him develop the structures of his designs. Dresser was also a distinguished author, whose writings addressed the aspiring class of skilled workers and artisans of his time and expounded on a variety of subjects, encompassing the technical as well as the theoretical.

In the mid-1870s, Dresser was the first European designer invited to visit Japan to learn about Japanese decorative arts, and he was granted the honor of being presented to the emperor. Dresser brought examples of British manufacture as gifts for the Imperial Museum of Japan and was given the opportunity to visit areas to which other Westerners had limited access, visiting hundreds of potteries and temples during his four-month stay. This first-hand exposure to the forms, production processes, materials and aesthetics of Japan had a profound impact upon Dresser. Impressed by the metal-working and craft techniques of Japanese design, a new aesthetic emerged in his work that appeared to shun the richly ornamented designs of his earlier career, altered his treatment of color, and spurred the use of mixed metals.

En route to Japan, Dresser advocated that American industrialists establish a formal museum dedicated to design, modeled after London’s South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum), to inspire future designers. In New York City, two decades later, the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration was established by sisters Sarah, Eleanor and Amelia Hewitt, the granddaughters of Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper. The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration was the first design museum in the United States—and the genesis of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. The Museums are entirely in keeping with Dresser’s inspirational life and philosophy.

Organized By: Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Curators: Paul Thompson, Director, Barbara Bloemink, Curatorial Director, Stephen Van Dyk, Chief Librarian of CH-SI Libraries, and Cindy Trope, Assistant Curator of Product Design/Decorative Arts.
Travels To: After opening at Cooper-Hewitt, Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser will travel to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, from September 9 to December 5, 2004.
Catalog: The accompanying exhibition catalog—entitled Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser’s Design Revolution, published by Cooper-Hewitt and V & A Publications, in collaboration with Harry N. Abrams, Inc.—will feature essays by some of the most eminent scholars of 19th century design, including Stuart Durant, Charlotte Gere, Widar Halén, Simon Jervis, Harry Lyons, Judy Rudoe, David Taylor and Michael Whiteway. The commissioning editor and consultant to the exhibition is Michael Whiteway. The catalog will be available in bookstores in March 2004; the hardcover edition is $55, and the softcover is $40.
Sponsors: Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser is made possible by Enid and Lester Morse, Connie and Harvey Krueger, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Barbara and Morton Mandel, Esme Usdan and James Snyder, and anonymous donors.
Additional funding is provided by Kay Allaire, Mr. John H. Bryan, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Stephen McKay Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Ross, Susan and Jon Rotenstreich, and The Felicia Fund.
Public Programs: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is planning an international symposium to explore and celebrate the work of Christopher Dresser on March 27, 2004. Feature presentations and object study sessions will examine Dresser's sources of inspiration and his important influence on design and architecture.
For additional public programs held in conjunction with this exhibition please visit, or contact the Education Department at 212-849-8380 or at
Exhibition Design: Matter Practice.
General Information: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The museum presents compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational programs, exhibitions, and publications.
Location: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street in New York City. Public transit routes include the Lexington Avenue 4, 5, and 6 subways (86th or 96th Street Stations) and Fifth and Madison Avenue buses.
Museum Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Admission: General admission, $10; senior citizens and students over age 12, $7. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum members and children under age 12 are admitted free. For further information, please call (212) 849-8400 or visit Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is fully accessible.
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