01/02/2014

A Cozy Red House

By

English architecture always seems to say “home” to me, no matter where it might be located. I get the feeling from small thatch roofed cottages and from Sir John Soane’s labrynthian townhouse – if only I could actually call that home. But perhaps the “homiest” feeling I get is from houses of the Arts and Crafts tradition, especially from the building that really started it all: William Morris’ Red House, in Bexleyheath, London

The Red House was designed in 1859 by the architect Philip Webb, but is known as the brainchild of Morris, the artist, painter, textile designer, stained glass enthusiast, woodworker, architect, poet and socialist. The building is asymmetrical and idiosyncratic, vernacular and totally cozy. It is storied now as the founding place for the Arts and Crafts movement, its hand-crafted, Medievally inspired designs a reaction to the uniformity and automation of the Industrial Age. 

The quote above the fireplace is Hippocrates: "Art is long, Life is short."

I was surprised when I first saw an image of the Red House as a student. I had imagined its adjective to be its defining feature: red roof, walls, window wells. But it was just a normal brick color, like so many other English houses. My initial reaction - You call this a red house? - would later inspire our saturated shingle style dwelling on Long Island. (Morris' Red House is, however, particularly beautiful this time of year, the snow even bringing out the color in greater relief.) 

The first time I got to actually visit the house was just a couple years ago. John Ike and I took a tour of it while in England. I usually don't like house tours all that much - too much time spent looking at family photographs, not enough time looking at architecture - but in this case the tour was great.

Edward Burne Jones (standing, left), William Morris (standing, right), and their families. 

It helps that the residents were so integral to its design. For six years following its construction, The Red House was a sort of hippy idyll, a crash pad and creative center for Morris and his design and artist friends. Morris lived there with his wife and eventually his two daughters, but it welcomed collaborators including Webb, Edward Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown.

It was a collaborative effort from the first sketches down to the stone, wood and tile details. (Morris, for instance, couldn't paint birds; he would design the rest of a pattern and have others fill in the blank spots for him.) Rooms were further adorned by Pre-Raphaelite murals, embroidered textiles, woven tapestries, and intricate stained glass windows. 

The story comes to a somewhat sad, if poetic, end. Morris had to leave the house for financial reasons in 1865, apparently so heartbroken at departing that he could never bear to set foot on the property again.

The site was recently acquired by the National Trust, and functions today as a museum of sorts, paying homage to the birthplace of Arts and Crafts. But it still feels distinctively "homey," given its materials, its volumes, its hand-rendered decor - and most of all given its back story. Morris and friends truly considered the place a labor of love.