Ahead of the Game; Christopher Dresser Was the Conran of the Victorian Era. A New Exhibition Celebrates the Man Who Invented Branding and Brought Style to the Masses. by Corinne Julius HOMES & PROPERTY

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Byline: CORINNE JULIUS

THE lionisation of designers is at a peak; Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Marc Newsom have been elevated to celebrities. Yet the first industrial designer, whose designs still look shockingly modern, is less well known.

Victorian polymath Christopher Dresser designed furniture, metalwork, ceramics, glass, wallpaper and textiles for a mass market.

He wrote influential books, was a design consultant to a host of companies, ran his own successful design studio and promoted a love of Japanese arts and design.

Dresser notched up a number of firsts; from embracing the machine as a means of raising design standards for the mass market, to creating his own brand.

He was the first designer to really understand manufacturing processes and to design accordingly, for more than 50 different manufacturers.

Now the centenary of his death is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

From a modest background, Dresser showed early talent. Born in 1834, he was admitted to the Government School of Design two years early, at 13, where he won prizes for teapot and textile design. There he met leading design luminaries and was taught botany. By 1860 he had an honorary doctorate in the subject from Germany's University of Jena and was elected Professor of Botany at St Mary's School of Medicine.

Though he considered pursuing a career in botany, he settled on using his scientific understanding to develop new patterns and forms of ornamentation and employed his training by taking a rigorous, analytical approach to design.

Botany's loss was design's gain, as Dresser devoted himself to becoming a professional designer, teaching at the School of Design in South Kensington (now the V&A). By 26, he had published several books, become a lecturer and had set up his studio.

His studio prospered, designing ceramics for Minton and Wedgwood and cast-iron pieces for Coalbrookdale. He turned his hand to textiles, wallpaper and carpet, creating geometric and botanical patterns, as well as asymmetrical designs. By 1868, his practice was lucrative enough to allow him to rent a huge house in Kensington. Three years later he could proclaim, "As an ornamentalist I have much the largest practice in the Kingdom ... There is not one branch of art manufacture that I do not regularly design patterns for." His team of studio designers included his daughters, one of whom explained: "No designs were ever issued without father's approval."

Dresser was influenced by the oriental art he had seen in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Japanese work displayed at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. The most i n f l u e n t i a l element in his career was his yearlong trip to Japan in 1876 , during which he was given semi-official status.

He delivered a gift from the South Kensington Museum to the Japanese, advised them on the modernisation of their industry and collected Japanese works for Tiffany of New York and for himself.

Dresser was received by the Emperor and given unprecedented access to the imperial collection. He visited makers of every description, learning traditional Japanese techniques and investigating the influence of religious beliefs.

He spread an understanding of Japanese design through his lectures, writing and design. …