From flea market to Manhattan penthouse: the revival of Christopher Dresser

Gilbert and George and Mickey Wolfson are among the enthusiastic collectors


New York

In 1950, Christopher Dresser’s granddaughter Nellie asked London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to take the papers of the visionary Victorian designer, whose mass-produced designs had made him a household name in the late 19th century.

“They turned her down flat, and Dresser’s papers were burnt, sadly,” recalls Paul Warwick Thompson, director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

Today, Christopher Dresser is undergoing a major revival, stimulated by the exhibition, “Shock of the old: Christopher Dresser” at the Cooper Hewitt (until 25 July). It is the first major retrospective devoted to the designer in North America, has attracted a huge number of visitors, 18,800 by 19 April, as many as that for the museum’s hip Triennial Show.

The interest in Dresser has boosted the market in the US, as well as for the English and American Aesthetic movements. These markets will probably also receive a strong boost in Europe when the exhibition travels to the V&A in September. Ironically, although Dresser taught at the institution, this will be the first large-scale museum show of his work in Europe.

Dresser was one of the pioneers of the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement in England and the US, with its strong emphasis on Japanese design. He is the leading name in this field, although William Morris, his contemporary in the Arts and Crafts movement, has long overshadowed him.

Dresser designs fall into two categories: the exotic, drawing on Moorish, Japanese and Egyptian influences; and the Modernist; he also conceived sleek, simple silverware and other household objects as well as highly ornamental pieces.

Less than two decades ago, Dresser wares were relegated to flea markets. Now both the late 19th-century English and American Aesthetic movements, which had no counterpart in continental Europe, are hugely fashionable. Museums began buying 10 years ago, according to Mr Thompson, and private collectors have recently been entering the market as well.

The list of these collectors includes, in Britain, the artists Gilbert and George and the furnishings entrepreneur Terence Conran, while American collectors include photography collector Paul Walthe; Mickey Wolfson, the founder of the Miami Beach Wolfsonian Museum; Joseph Holtzman, publisher and editor of the hip quarterly nest, a design magazine, and William S. Taubman, son of A. Alfred Taubman, the disgraced majority shareholder of Sotheby’s.

The renewal of interest has led to an escalation of prices, particularly for Dresser. One example, a Dresser toast rack, formed of a series of slender triangular forms, is on sale at Historical Design for $45,000.

“Every serious collector of 20th-century design is interested in Dresser,” says Denis Gallion of Historical Design. He has 40 clients who own works by Dresser and has mounted a Dresser exhibition to coincide with the Cooper-Hewitt show. In an interesting crossover, Mr Gallion says he has collectors of the Austrian Secessionist designer Hans Hoffman, who have started buying Dresser wares. The demand has caused prices for the best examples to shoot up two to three times in the past five years.

At the New York Ceramics Fair last January, Nicholas Boston sold 40 Minton, Linthorp, Ault and Old Hall ceramics by Dresser. Prices ran from $280 to $60,000 for a Paris Exhibition vase from 1867. “Fashions start in New York,” says the dealer.

Aesthetic movement furnishing has long been considered a forgotten chapter of American decorative arts. Created between 1875 and 1890, the style was a revolt against the heaviness of the Renaissance Revival and was inspired by the Japanese arts.

Dresser played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Japanese art, and he was the first European designer invited to Japan after it opened up to outsiders in 1854. The Fifth Avenue emporium Tiffany & Co. ordered him to bring back 8,000 examples of Japanese art in 1876. Many of these were copied and acquired by members of the artistic community, so in effect the Scottish-born designer jump-started the late 19th-century Japonisme design craze.

The Japanese style was characterised by shallow carving, brass inlays and simplicity of design coupled with Japanese imagery. While Dresser is credited with designing a great deal, it is difficult to attribute much to him, and the same is true for the New Yorker Herter Brothers, who designed furniture for the Vanderbilt mansion. Only about one quarter of their work is signed.

The Manhattan dealer Margot Johnson is the leading supplier of American Aesthetic movement works to fine arts institutions, and she notes that another crucial group is buying in the field of decorators. She is currently selling to a designer who is renovating an apartment in the Dakota, the architectural gem designed in 1884 by Henry J. Hardenbergh.

Ms Johnson says that the number of private collectors at the top end of the market has doubled in the past five years. “One client sold his 18th-century Americana and bought Aesthetic movement pieces,” she says. She believes the appeal is due to the sophistication of the design. Among the pieces she is offering is a Herter Brothers chair made for the Vanderbilt mansion, carved with pea pods and banded with brass. Of the eight made for the mansion, it is the only one on the market: another is in the Metropolitan Museum.

o Shock of the old: Christopher Dresser’s design revolution, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York (until 29 July)

o Christopher Dresser

Historical Design, New York

306 East 61st Street, New York NY 10021

% +1 212 593 4528 (until end May)

o Christopher Dresser

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(16 September-6 December)