give me Liberty

floral fabrics at Liberty & Co., London

Depending on one’s point of view, on March 14, 2010 the British Arts and Crafts Movement either reached an all-time height in its ongoing apotheosis or felt its final death rattles.  On that date Target stores across the US unveiled the company’s most recent effort to team out-of-house, top-notch designers with the mass-production and massive marketing that accounts for the big box’s big success.  Recent design collaborations with the rarefied likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Rodarte have successfully brought haute fashion within reach of the likes of you and me, but those partnerships have not raised the same kind of philosophical and moral issues that the collaboration with Liberty of London does.

idealistic: Morris chair (handmade everything, 1870; V & A collection)

This story takes a little time.  Taste suggests you prepare yourself a cuppa, settle in, and bear with us as we travel back to mid-nineteenth century England, where a sense of unease (if not outright revulsion) about the industrialization that had swept the country and dissatisfaction with the level of design quality in manufactured goods prompted the movement that would later be termed Arts and Crafts.  At its center was a group of Oxford divinity students (make that soon-to-be-former divinity students), who were also concerned by the human cost of making those goods. In addition to the obvious abuse of the scores of people (children among them) who were dehumanized by the manufacture process, the burgeoning Arts and Crafts philosophers noted the toll taken on the consumers of these sub-standard products as well.  Their most profound expositor, William Morris, argued in an essay of 1877 (“The Lesser Arts of Life,” which you can–and should–read by clicking here) for the abolishment of the traditional distinction between high art and low.  Morris believed that the Lesser Arts, whose “first intention was to satisfy [men’s] bodily wants” (furniture, table service, clothing, and so on) should be made as beautiful as they were useful by appropriating the ability to “satisfy men’s spiritual wants,” which had long been the realm of the Greater Arts (monumental sculpture, oil paintings, etc.).  Morris’ famous dictum, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” exemplified the scores of wallpaper, furniture, book, and textile designs that rolled out of Morris and Company workshops, manifest in useful/decorative arts through traditional methods of handcraft, and that were destined to fill English domiciles from Cornwall to Cumbria.  Great idea, and great products, if one could get them—rather, if one could afford them.  All that ennobling hand-craftwork is luscious and marvelous but it does not come cheap.  For all his utopian aims, Morris’ Lesser Arts remained out of the reach of the classes he most hoped to serve and, with no small irony, were affordable instead to those families made rich through the Industrial Revolution.

realistic: Liberty & Co. washstand (some industrial process, 1894: V & A collection)

Enter Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who saw the necessity of compromising the purity of Arts and Crafts ideals on the production side to achieve their wide diffusion on the consumer side.  Liberty was a London draper’s apprentice, warehouse manager, and finally owner of his own shop, Liberty & Co., which opened in 1875.  The store specialized in fabrics and well-designed decorative arts (wallpaper, clocks, jewelry, pewter), much of it with patterns inspired by nature and artistic traditions of the Far East and manufactured with industrial means that made them more affordable.  Through his efforts Liberty achieved his aim “to combine utility and good taste with modest cost,” and did much more to achieve Morris’ aim to brighten English homes with well-designed and crafted goods, although the production did indeed involve machines and even those “dark Satanic mills” that William Blake warned us about a half-century earlier.

the Liberty store in Regent Street: inside

Flash forward to the later twentieth century.  Liberty & Co. maintains its presence in one of London’s great shopping districts, but is no longer such a leader in progressive design and style. The store’s Tudor architecture, which once symbolized Liberty’s association with wholesome, high-quality pre-Industrial Revolution crafts, now embodies a fusty Olde England that no one much misses.  Before the whole enterprise vanished in the dim nostalgic haze emanating from the receding glory days of pewter tankards and floral tea cozies, Liberty & Co. was rejuvenated by the 2005 launch of Liberty of London, an in-house label headed up by creative director Tamalra Salman.  Salman has done much to update standard Liberty wares and goods, in part by inviting unexpected collaborators to design clothes and accessories for the label (a Ronnie Wood makeup bag, anyone?).  An extension of these in-house collaborations, the recent deal struck with the across-the-pond retailer Target was a lower-brow effort at the same kind of partnership that had been a mainstay with Liberty.

pretty dress by Liberty of London for Target, available 3.13 miles from MoT HQ ($30)

In service to you, dear reader, Matters of Taste Correspondent for Consumer Affairs doorbusted her way into Target on that fateful Sunday to get a firsthand look at the line, as well as to stock the MoT archives with key pieces from the collection.  She reports from her exhaustive study that the goods really are delightful: nice materials with bright sunny patterns and solid construction; some of the dresses are even lined. The combination of quality products, superior design and reasonable cost has clearly struck a chord not only with our correspondent but with Yankee consumers from coast to coast; this stuff has flown off the shelves at such a rate one would think that some kind of Denim Curtain had just fallen, allowing comrades to ditch the capri jeans, breathe the air of aesthetic freedom and indulge in head-to-toe paisleys for the first time ever.

pretty dress by Liberty & Co., available 3,963 miles from MoT HQ (& quite a bit more than $30)

In many ways the Liberty of London for Target collaboration exemplifies what the Arts and Crafts were all about: the uniformly good, and occasionally great, designs are realized through the marriage of functional objects with beautiful patterns on durable materials for virtually every “bodily want” from bedding to bikes.  The only thing that’s missing from the collection is a collar for Taste’s resident pooch, which is regrettable, since she will not be perfectly accessorized on walks when we go out in our Liberty of London for Target dress, Liberty of London for Target trench coat, Liberty of London for Target hat, Liberty of London for Target rain boots and Liberty of London for Target umbrella.  Nor will she be a perfect aesthetic fit when she naps on her Liberty of London for Target pillow, near the Liberty of London for Target planter, which we tilled with our Liberty of London for Target gardening tools, and eating biscuits from our Liberty of London for Target dishes.  Beyond this oversight, Taste is thrilled by the collection, which stands up pretty well against the real Liberty goods purchased by MoT‘s Resident Sconologist in London.  Who wouldn’t be thrilled to scoop up a brightly patterned dress with a perfect fit and offered up for $30 rather than the $360 of the original Liberty garment on which it is based (assuming one could find one’s way to London in the first place, which is getting harder and harder with MoT‘s strict CFO limiting our passport usage)?

pewter milk jug; Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co. (1904; V & A  collection)

But we wonder: what accounts for that drop in price?  Quantity? Probably–we’re just guessing that Target is pushing a few more zillion gross products than Liberty’s flagship store.  Use of more common materials?  No doubt–there is a drop in quality from the very-high quality wares from London, and we would be hard pressed to find any melamine for sale on Regent Street.  Cheaper labor?  Bingo. How our Correspondent wishes she had neither bothered to read the “made in” label in the garments (nor the stickers on all the other things), nor all those essays by Morris.  All this stuff was mass-produced in China and then shipped via a variety of petroleum-eating vehicles to the States.  That’s a lot of machines, a lot of industry, but especially a huge separation between the designer and the maker, which was one of the primary objectives of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  This collaboration has basically shifted the burden of mechanical enslavement from British factories to Chinese ones, as is the case for so much contemporary garment fabrication.  Never has such lovely, lovely florals and paisleys and peacock feathers been such a buzz kill, but that’s what you get when you’re on a budget and you go and develop a social conscience along with a liking for pretty things.

melamine salad plate; Liberty of London for Target  (2010; MoT archives)

Had the designers behind Liberty of London for Target done a little soul searching, and thought back through the heritage that is so proudly and beautifully celebrated in the aesthetics of this collaboration, to the heart of the movement that lives on (in some form) in their products, the collaboration could have been something really special. Of course altering the means by which most of the garments and other goods consumed in the West are fabricated would have affected their price, but how much?  Based on a quick survey of the Liberty of London site and the Target catalogue it’s not difficult to find similar goods that are widely divergent in their price points.  Would a slightly more expensive Target collection have allowed the US retailer to take an astonishing social stand in favor of workers’ rights while making these pretty things availing to a hungering mass of consumers who would still clear the shelves in record time?  And ultimately, would improving the lot of factory workers not be in fantastically good taste?

At the same time, consumers are responsible for this soul-searching as well, and we don’t need to couch this argument in “present economic circumstances” to understand the timeless advice of distinguishing between need and want: Morris told us as much back in 1882:

There is a vast deal of labour spent in supplying civilised man with things which he has come to consider needful, and which, as a rule, he will not do without. Much of that labour is grievous and oppressive . . .

These, I think, are the principles on which the citizen’s resistance to Philistine oppression must be founded; to do with as few things as we can, and, as far as we can, to see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves; these two seem to me to be the main duties to be fulfilled by those who wish to live a life at once free and refined, serviceable to others, and pleasant to themselves.  (Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life”)

While Morris is eminently and appropriately quotable for this piece, Taste could not help but adopt Patrick Henry’s words for our title (along with only a few hundred other bloggers and fashion writers who did exactly the same brilliantly creative thing).  But we find it also appropriate to conclude with the words of another revolutionary, Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platière:

O Liberty!  O Liberty!  How many crimes are committed in thy name!

Unlike Henry, whose defiant slogan was reportedly met with cheers, Madame Roland faced trumped-up charges that lead her to the guillotine.  So we conclude, while surveying our Liberty of London for Target desk accessories and drinking from our Liberty of London for Target cup, and wishing that Liberty of London for Target had designed a coordinating laptop sleeve–perhaps with an interlace pattern of arabesques and guilt.

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