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Strength in diversity

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review - Christopher Dresser 1834-1904: A Design Revolution At the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 5 December

Billed as 'the first major museum exhibition devoted to Dresser', this extremely handsome show (first seen at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York) is a further marker of the rise of Christopher Dresser as a collectable cult figure, in the tradition of Pugin, Morris and Mackintosh.

A Dresser exhibition mounted by the Fine Art Society in 1972 truly launched the market for his objects. In 1991 the admirable Italian manufacturer Alessi paid homage to him by faithfully reproducing a number of his metalwork designs in limited, hand-crafted editions.

There was a certain irony here, in that Dresser had been rescued from obscurity by Nikolaus Pevsner on the basis of his involvement in mass production.

Dresser was 'the first independent industrial designer', even 'the pioneer of branding', working for a whole range of big manufacturers of everything from carpets and curtains to garden benches and the now-celebrated toast racks. These artefacts were aimed at a broad middle-class market, rather than the affluent elite able to afford the handmade products of Morris & Co. For this reason, it seems, his work was not collected seriously by museums - it did not rate as 'art' - and it was left to dealers and private collectors to champion his achievements. Prominent among the latter is Michael Whiteway, editor of the excellent exhibition catalogue (V&A Publications, £35).

Glasgow-born Dresser described himself, significantly, as 'architect and ornamentist'.

Educated at the Government School of Design, he had no architectural training. Up to 1931, of course, any designer could use the term 'architect' freely, but for Dresser it had real significance. He did not design buildings but did create a number of interior schemes, two of which survive (in Leicester and Halifax) in recognisable form, where every component reflected an overall aesthetic programme.

In this he was following in the footsteps of his much-admired mentors, Owen Jones and A W N Pugin, the latter first achieving fame as the designer of everything from wall coverings to ink pots in a building (the Palace of Westminster) which he professed to despise.

As Simon Jervis points out in a particularly perceptive catalogue essay, setting Dresser in the context of his own age, not everything that the latter did was admirable. Moreover, there were good reasons why Dresser's reputation slumped (making Pevsner's 1937 essay in The Architectural Review a true example of rediscovery), while that of his exact contemporary Morris has never faded in over a century.

Morris was an inspirational polymath, a brilliant and wealthy amateur, an 'ideas man' at odds with his own age and with the ability to inspire everyone from Walter Gropius to the young Quinlan Terry. Dresser was, by contrast, a self-made man, a down-to-earth modernising technocrat, whose links to mass production set him at odds with the prophets of the Arts and Crafts.

Not that Dresser was an intellectual slouch.

He gained a Ph.D from Jena University and pursued scholarly researches in the field of botany - botanical imagery infused many of his designs. His knowledge of Oriental art was extensive and also informed them.

We no longer need to characterise Dresser as a 'pioneer of modern design' to enjoy his work. Its diversity and sheer imaginative force, sometimes verging on the grotesque, can now be seen as its greatest strength. Yes, the toast racks and teapots that seem to anticipate the achievements of Bauhaus designers are irresistible in their simplicity, but the wallpapers and ironwork - as full-bloodedly Victorian as the architecture of Street or Burges, the work of an 'ornamentist' - can equally be admired in a Post-Modern age. Whether it all constitutes 'a design revolution' remains unanswered.

Pevsner would doubtless be dismayed by many pieces in the exhibition 'Tea & Coffee Towers: Alessi at the Soane' (Sir John Soane's Museum, until 4 December). Twenty leading architects, including Alsop, Hadid, Nouvel, Morphosis, Ito and Future Systems, have designed tea and coffee sets for the company: they are instant museum objects, shown to good effect among the precious bric-a-brac of Soane's extraordinary house/museum/mausoleum. All are being hand-made to order - no preoccupation with the ethics of mass production here, nor any notion that objects need to look 'functional'.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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