Kelmscott ManorThere is a fine line between having a vision and being an idealist: indeed, it can be so fine as to be invisible to others, as the following quote – from interior designer and TV personality Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen demonstrates: “Re: William Morris ‘He didn’t quite bring down the Walls of Jericho so much as cover them in nice wallpaper“. Morris’s historic wallpaper is obviously now in imminent peril of damage from those sharp little claws, and it will be amusing to see in a century’s time how many museums are dedicated to preserving and showing old VHS tapes of episodes of Changing Rooms.

Googling this morning, the quote from Llewelyn-Bowen I unearthed most frequently was “I’ve just bought myself a G-string – which is rather fun.” Not a vision I cared to have so soon after breakfast, and not one I’d argue compares too favourably with what is possibly Morris’ most famous quote:

If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

A pretty good mission statement for a man who (as Morris did) ran a decorative arts company, although the vision ran rather deeper than providing a nifty strap line. Few interior designers integrate their work and their view of the world so intensely as to write a Utopian novel – News from Nowhere, which describes a then future world as Morris would ideally imagine it (set partly at his country home, Kelmscott Manor, pictured top left) – and to be highly influential in the formation of a major political party.

The Morris quote above truly was part of a philosophy – and one that might (as it no doubt did for him) be applied in a more metaphorical sense of ‘house’. One of the man’s creeds was quality – another quote implores us:

If you cannot learn to love real art; at least learn to hate sham art and reject it . . . because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them.”

The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ were, for Morris, intrinsically part and parcel. Although he stood against the impact of industrialization and commerce on quality, his dual requirement might still make a useful (and, in the context of business maxims, unusually beautiful) criterion for testing service or product portfolios, or business process designs. (As we’ve argued before, ‘Why?’ is often the best – or at least the most illuminating question.)

At a surface level, it might seem that the things that have survived longest of Morris’ life and work have been either his fabric designs (without him, Independent and Guardian readers would have less attractive tea-towels and curtains, although some might need to forgive him for the later rise of Laura Ashley), or his political causes. Although he only accepted a role for parliament in his final years – as the (interesting) LabourList website biographic article on him points out, “in his News from Nowhere Parliament has become a storage facility for horse manure”) – he was an environmentalist before the creed had a name.

At a surface level, it might seem that the things that have survived longest of Morris’ life and work have been either his fabric designs (without him, Independent and Guardian readers would have less attractive tea-towels and curtains, although some might need to forgive him for the later rise of Laura Ashley), or his political causes. Although he only accepted a role for parliament in his final years – as

But it strikes me that his concern to unite ‘what’ and ‘how’ in terms of our relationship with our daily work illuminates another interesting legacy: employee engagement. Try reading the following quotes:

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.”

A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works.”

As Kirsty Young’s interesting recent BBC series The British At Work pointed out in the last of its four episodes, work and life are merging for many of us: we are, as she put it, increasingly defined not by who we are, but by what we do. (You may have noticed that “And what do you do?” is not just HM The Queen’s frequent opening gambit, but the ‘safe’ opening line at any British social gathering where the nibbles didn’t come from Iceland). For Kirsty, that blurring has arrived from the work direction: flexible working patterns, job insecurity and mobile technology are just three factors that have meant that many of us have seen our professional lives (if we can call them that) bleed into our family and private lives.

Morris hoped for a similar blurring – but from the other direction. While his utopian politics were an integral factor in this outlook, he wanted work to be fulfilling, meaningful and readily embraced as a result. He also firmly believed that we should work to live, not vice versa:

The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?

His utopianism – founded in a personal vision of an embryonic version of socialism – didn’t achieve that. Yet the urgings of today’s management (also covered in Young’s programmes) from a radically different philosophical viewpoint aren’t necessarily achieving anything more positively than job insecurity is achieving more negatively. That engagement, satisfaction and fulfilment remain distant goals for (too) many of us is plainly evident in recent blog posts as diverse as that at The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms and Martha William’s The Wet Rock Blog.

It is easy, especially in 2011, to look at Morris and accuse him not just of idealism but of seeking a retreat into rural medievalism: in many ways, the onward rush of ‘progress’ has taken us beyond points at which we might turn back. But human nature has changed less than the world we inhabit: most of us still search for meaning and for enjoyment and satisfaction. Oliver Burkeman may have found the following snippet of information sufficiently arresting to include in his recent Guardian column:

Psychologists have tended to assume people can be located on a simple continuum: at one end, those who feel their lives are deeply meaningful, and are consequently happy; at the other, those who feel their lives lack meaning, and feel tortured or depressed. […] But a study by Tatjana Schnell, of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, based on a survey of 603 Germans, found 35% of them were “existentially indifferent”: they didn’t feel their lives had meaning, and frankly, it didn’t much bother them.

– but then again, that leaves 65% of them who are bothered. And as Schnell’s abstract points out “The existentially indifferent show low commitment to all sources of meaning; they demonstrate particular disinterest in self-knowledge”, which leaves me wondering whether the indifferent 35% actually are as indifferent as they perceive themselves to be.

Morris’s aspirations of meaningful and enjoyable work do find later echoes in more recent writers – I thinking notably of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (reviewed here last year, and which sees ‘craft’ in many working lives not traditionally labelled as such), but also:

– all of whom operating in different spheres from the likes of Dave Ulrich, although it’s worth remembering his latest book (which we also reviewed) was concerned directly with its title, The Why of Work.

Morris’ dreams remained unfulfilled – perhaps too utopian for any man to achieve. But we are still wrestling with the questions he posed over a hundred years later: where he still with us, he might every much a good case for dismissing our achievements as we do of his. And most of today’s HR managers and engagement gurus will probably not leave an incidental legacy of some rather nice tea-towels.

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