In the heart of a suburb just east of London stands an incongruous red brick villa. With its pointed arched window frames and towering chimneys, the house was designed to appear like a relic of the Middle Ages. In reality, its vintage dates to the 1860’s. This is Red House, the Arts and Crafts home of artist William Morris and his family. Built as a rebuttal to an increasingly industrialized age, Red House’s message has been both diminished by the passage of time and, over the course of the centuries, been cast in greater relief against its context.
Morris was one of a formal group of people in the mid-19th Century who grew increasingly concerned about the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. While the mass-production of household objects made them affordable, critics in the vein of John Ruskin felt that modern manufacturing processes deprived workers of the satisfaction of handcrafting, and that consumers were surrounding themselves with soulless products. This impression aligned poorly with the contemporary notion that the home should serve as a spiritual and moral respite from the chaos of the cities, a philosophy termed the “Cult of Domesticity.” The perceived solution was a revival of the medieval “Guild” mode of production, in which craftsmen were directly involved in the entire manufacturing process.
During his tenure in the Oxford office of architect George Edmund Street, Morris formed what would turn out to be a long-lived friendship with his co-worker Philip Speakman Webb. Even when Morris left the firm—and architectural practice altogether—after only a year to become a painter, the two remained close enough that they, along with their friend Charles Faulkner, took a joint trip along the Seine in France over the course of 1858. During this voyage, Morris discussed his plans to build a house for himself and his wife Jane with Webb. He also became determined to start his own fellowship of artists and craftsmen, and shortly realized that his new home could be the test of their combined abilities.
Upon their return to England, Morris and Webb selected a site in the hamlet of Upton, near Bexleyheath in Kent. It was, at the time, a largely picturesque and undeveloped area, dotted with cottages, medieval ruins, and a nearby Tudor mansion (Hall Place). Nestled between orchards and market gardens, the new house was to stand on an acre of land which, at the price of £4000 (roughly £307,026 [$395,962 USD] by today’s standards), cost Morris five times his annual income at the time. With its somewhat modest proportions, his new home was not to resemble an English country estate, but rather a villa that presaged the suburban developments to come in the following decades.
The aesthetic styling of the house is a clear indicator of its designers’ fixation on the medieval ideal: its steeply-pitched roofs, prominent chimneys, and cross gables mark the building as an example of simplified Tudor Gothic design. The L-shape of the house’s footprint allows it to partially wrap around a garden, simultaneously creating an asymmetry typical of medieval structures built and renovated incrementally over time. The Gothic style was a favorite of Arts and Crafts practitioners; to them, it hearkened back to an age of greater craftsmanship and human dignity. Having originated in Western Europe, it was also seen as more appropriate for an English site than the Greco-Roman influences of Classicist architecture.
Whereas most fashionable villas of the period were finished in stucco, Morris’ new home was built of exposed brick that inspired its name “Red House.” A tower stands at the vertex of the L, containing the staircase; branching out from this vertex are the two wings of the house. The front wing contains the principal rooms, including the dining room, reception rooms, drawing room, main bedroom, studio, and a garden porch. The rear wing contains the more private elements, such as the lesser bedrooms, servant quarters and lavatory, scullery, kitchens, larders, and back stairs. The garden is sheltered in the southeastern lee of the building, while the main entrance is to the north, facing the street.The bold representation of the house’s structural materials, along with its practical and straightforward layout, hint at an unexpectedly Functionalist approach cloaked in historicist trappings.[5,6]
Through a somewhat low and unceremonious front porch, visitors pass into the austere entrance hall. The space is largely devoid of extraneous ornament, paved in simple red flagstone and framed with exposed timbers, setting a decorative precedent followed by the rest of the house. The lack of frenetic ornamentation does not mean that there is no attention to aesthetics, however; rather than gird the structure with decorations, Webb used the structure itself to create visual interest. Throughout the interior spaces, exposed brick arches and timber framing, frequently laid out asymmetrically, serve as an indoor continuation of the house’s external appearance. Brick fireplaces formed the visual centerpieces of the principal rooms, complete with ironwork grates which have since been removed.
While the architecture of the house was Webb’s domain, the creation of its furnishings fell to Morris, his wife Jane, and painter Edward Burne-Jones. Their collaborative works throughout the house were as much a celebration of medieval craftsmanship as the building which contained them: everything from the wallpapers to the built-in furniture bore their creative touch. A settle in the entrance hall is adorned with Morris’ painted realization of a scene from the Niebelungenlied, while a Gothic hutch designed by Webb stands in the dining room. Stained glass windows around the house were designed by Morris’ family and friends. On the second floor, the living room fireplace is painted with Morris’ Latin motto, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: “Life is short, art is forever.”
Although Red House is a stylistic masterpiece, certain of its features reveal the relative inexperience of its designers. The orientation of the house means that the principal rooms all face north, leaving them uncomfortably cold even in summer. The fireplaces in each were not only too small to compensate, but smoked so badly that the chimneys had to be heightened in 1861. Meanwhile, the kitchen was positioned to take in the afternoon sun, heating up just as house staff were preparing for afternoon tea and dinner. The larders, being located adjacent to the kitchen, were likewise prone to overheating – a serious flaw in a space designated for food storage. The cellar, which only occupied the space under the stairs instead of the majority of the house as was customary, was insufficient to compensate. These flaws, although having failed to diminish Red House’s status in the architectural canon, rankled Philip Webb later in life to the point that he declared his desire never to see the building again and that no architect under forty ought to design a house.
Financial difficulties forced Morris to sell Red House in 1865, only five years after his family had moved in. Over the next fourteen decades, the house remained a private residence; it was only in 2003 that the property was acquired by the UK’s National Trust, ensuring its preservation and opening the house to the public as a museum. With the exception of some missing furniture and new wallpapers developed by Morris after he moved away, Red House remains much as it did in 1865, providing contemporary visitors with a glimpse of the original owner’s vision for an ideal life. Now surrounded by a dense suburban development, Red House stands out as a work of dedicated craftsmanship, its Gothic aesthetic silently protesting the realities of an industrialized world.
 Harkness, Dr. Kristen M. "William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House." Khan Academy. Accessed June 02, 2017. [access].
 Postiglione, Gennaro, and Francesca Acerboni. One Hundred Houses for One Hundred Architects. Hong Kong: Taschen, 2008. p272.
 Marsh, Jan. William Morris and Red House. London: National Trust, 2005. p19-22.
 Marsh, p29.
 Postiglione and Acerboni, p276.
 Marsh, p22-24.
 Marsh, p29-32.
LocationGreater London, United Kingdom
Architect in ChargePhilip Webb
Interior Designs And FurnitureJane Morris