If personal brand, as Jeff Bezos argues, is what people say about you when you leave the room, then William Morris's identity would simply be that of a great decorator, as the obituaries greeted him in the English press in October 1896, when the designer from Walthamstow, a village in the north of London, died at the age of 62.
But, fortunately, after the doors of the eternal room those of history open wide, and then the judgment changes completely.
The designer and the writer, the entrepreneur and the political activist, the painter, the poet, the calligrapher, the author of furniture, fabrics and wallpapers.
It is still difficult, one hundred and twenty-seven years after his death, to fix the legendary versatility of the genius of Morris in one and only one definition, so much so that even the monumental illustrated volume that his name, edited by the greatest expert of Arts & Crafts, Anna Mason, and released in Italy by Giulio Einaudi, an extension and update of the tome that accompanied a historical exhibition in 1996 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, struggles to find a single formula for one of the most extraordinary figures in British culture.
"Morris," writes Mason, "was as much a visionary as a man of action, and worked steadfastly throughout his life to democratize art and foster a radical new social equality."
The work as a social feed
If we made peace with words, a century and a half later we could venture to define Morris as the first design influencer in history, and try to imagine his Instagram grid as a wonderful alternation of Strawberry Thieves and Pomegranate, of ceramics, tiles and colored glass, while the stories would portray him and the others from Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co - workers included - to put together one of the interiors that revolutionized the approach to manufacturing and the aesthetics of the Victorian era.
The captions would be pieces of civil speeches such as The Art and the Beauty of the Earth of 1881, in which Morris wrote that "certainly there is not a square mile of the earth's habitable surface which is not beautiful in its way, if only we men will refrain from deliberately destroying that beauty”.
The project and its identity, a holistic vision
The global vision of the project, in which every detail is the element of a general score, make Morris - who, it should be remembered, was not an architect - a anticipator of the holistic approach not only to decor , but to the very identity of the design and the designer.
There is a passage in the essay in the volume edited by Mason, written by Fiona McCarthy, which is almost moving for the story of the dedication that the man instilled in the projects for free time, which then was never truly free.
For years, McCarthy says, Morris worked hard to give the literary works he admired a proper material embodiment.
He transcribed sagas, classical and Persian texts experimenting with scripts, layouts and gilding and miniature techniques.
“Just like in his approach to interiors, he was interested in how to combine all these different elements to create a cohesive whole. This activity, carried out mainly on Sunday mornings, was quite distinct from his commercial work for the company, but no less serious in its intent than he was ”.
Storyteller ante litteram
Morris saw things in their entirety, he was immersed in the details of the various craft disciplines, but never losing sight of the big picture.
For this reason, in the Morris & Co. in Oxford Street placed its furnishings side by side, to give a better sense of how they worked together. For this reason, inside and outside, the garden and the home of the Red House, a veritable house-manifesto, dialogue creating a continuum.
Morris also managed to unite the world of the uniquely manly time of furniture manufacturing with the feminine tradition of textile craftsmanship.
He assimilated color with the eye of the poet and his palettes, of medieval inspiration, were a sort of ante litteram storytelling.
It is no coincidence that he fell in love with the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals for their narrative qualities: they also conveyed the message to the illiterate.
This global vision to be maintained at all costs made him a professional who was not very malleable, and in fact more than one letter from friends, family or clients tells him how the stubborn person who keeps his point in the face of the client's requests to use such a fabric instead of a 'other.
Of course, this monolithic and at the same time multifaceted identity becomes rhinestone dust if we think about how design after Morris has managed its legacy, often reducing it to a hypnotic celebration of patterns for fashion or merchandising.
But ultimately it is the inherent price of genius that we must be willing to pay. Even if Morris would almost certainly have preferred not to go to the register.