On opening day in April 1881 you could hardly get down New Bond St in London for the waiting carriages of the rich and famous jamming the street. In the shop at 157 the assistants were dressed in aesthetic style costumes in the carefully chosen colour palette of the movement. It was the BIBA of its age. As one commentator put it “All the world and his wife is visiting Dr Dresser’s shop”. Even The Royal Family sent an equerry to report back.
Dr Dresser was designer Christopher Dresser and the shop was snappily named The Art Furnishers’ Alliance. After many generations of neglect, Christopher Dresser has in the past 20 years or so taken his rightful place in the cultural heritage of middle Victorian period as a modernist without much of the baggage of William Morris.
Dresser’s was a strange, essentially Victorian career that straddled effortlessly the sciences and the arts. He first earned his living as a botanist, publishing such titles as The Rudiments of Botany, Structural and Physiological in 1859, However, a series of articles entitled Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Arts Manufactures, led him to his true calling.
By the time of the Art Furnishers’ Alliance, he had a strong enough reputation as an industrial designer that he could lend his name to projects without having to put in too much risk. He was then designing for many companies across a variety of media, often sending in his designs and having his trademark signature attached to the objects without even having to visit the factories concerned.
He had recently returned from a mammoth world tour with Japan as his key destination, calling in at the Philadelphia World’s Fair as part of his trip.
By 1880, Dresser had already moved into retail. He opened a shop in Clerkenwell in partnership with Charles Holme (who would go on to launch The Studio magazine in the 1890s). Dresser and Holme in Farringdon Road imported Japanese furnishings, fabrics, ceramics and the like, using Dresser’s contacts from Japan and bringing similar stuff from India with Holme’s sources. The plan was to cash in on the trend that was sweeping London for anything and everything oriental. Right about then you could go to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in the evening after watching the traditional tea ceremony re-enacted in a faux Japanese village full of Geishas in Hyde Park.
That same year Dresser had been taken on as art editor of the Furniture Gazette, though he only stayed there a year. He may have taken the role for the publicity it gave him, because as early as April 1880 the magazine assiduously pushed designs from only one shop, without any seeming concern over conflict of interest. Dresser & Holme got a puff in virtually every issue – usually a full-page illustration of a Japanese tea pot, a pottery vase or some other knick knack, with the rubric at the bottom of the page that the items were “imported by Messrs Dresser & Holme”.
The Art Furnishers’ Alliance was put together in 1880 but it took nearly a year to open. It had a mission statement, which was:
“This Alliance is established to supply the general public with artistic house furnishing requirements of the best description, including furniture, carpets, wall decorations, hangings, pottery, table glass, silversmiths’ wares, hardware, &c. The advanced standard of public taste attained during the last few years has created an unprecedented demand for art objects, and there is no establishment in Great Britain where only works of true art excellence can be procured.
“The Art direction, general arrangements and selection of the exhibits has been entrusted to Dr. Christopher Dresser, the well-known authority of all art subjects, and no object, whether an important work or mere adjunct of furnishing, will be exhibited unless its art qualities are duly tested The public will thus have an absolute guarantee that every article sold, whether costly or cheap, will impose intrinsic art merit as regards its originality, design, and execution.”
The company traded successfully through 1881 and 1882. But fashions and fashionable places will inexorably lose their charm. One day IKEA will have gone the way of Habitat, BIBA, TWA and Pan Am or in most countries Woolworth. So it was with the Art Furnishers’ Alliance. Two decades later and The Studio magazine had identified that the reason it failed was simply that it was ahead of its time.
On May 2nd 1883 Scotsman Matthew Ker and his partner William Henry Bright had had enough. Together they were owed a great deal of money by the Art Furnishers’ Alliance and it was time to try and collect — by winding up the company. The elder of the two, Ker was 55, while Bright was still under 40. Ker had worked as a cabinet maker for 30 years, first as a journeyman for his father Jessie’s family business in London’s Cumberland Market, later taking it over and running it successfully. Bright too had learnt his cabinetmaking from his father in Essex, though he had only moved to London ten years before.
The liquidator kept meticulous records of the final days of the shop, noting down every bus fare, virtually every sale and salary payment as the company dwindled away during the summer and autumn of 1883. The last entry in his ledger is when one of the shareholders finally paid his bill.
A Mr Arthur Lasenby Liberty (yes, that Liberty, of Liberty’s) who had invested £250, buying 50 shares, and who perhaps had a vested interest in seeing Dresser’s shop do less well than his own emporium on Regent Street, sent in his cheque for the outstanding £5- 3s- 6d on October 25th 1883. Two days later the Art Furnishers’ Alliance shut the door to 157 New Bond St forever.
There are many good websites touching on the life of Christopher Dresser. Here’s just one:-
Sadly though, you and I we both missed Dresserfest 2015