As part of Optima®’s ongoing “Women in Design” series, we are honored to spotlight May Morris, a pioneering figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. The daughter of renowned designer William Morris, May carved out her own influential career as an artist, designer, and advocate for the applied arts. Her legacy is profound, encompassing not only her extraordinary talent but also her tireless efforts to elevate the role of women in the design world.

Early Life and Education
Born on March 25, 1862, in London, Mary “May” Morris grew up in an environment steeped in creativity and craftsmanship. Her father, William Morris, was a pivotal figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, and his passion for design and social reform deeply influenced her. May’s mother, Jane Morris, was a model and muse for many Pre-Raphaelite artists, adding another layer of artistic influence to May’s upbringing.

From an early age, May was exposed to the creative world, often accompanying her father to his workshops and observing the meticulous process of design and creation. Recognizing her budding talent, her parents supported her education in the arts. May attended the South Kensington School of Design, now known as the Royal College of Art, where she honed her skills in embroidery, textile design, and jewelry making.

Maids of Honour embroidery design, 1890s. Silk on fine gauze. Gift by Mrs Stephanie Godwin, 1995 to the William Morris Gallery. Photo credit: AndyScott on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A Career in Design
May Morris’s professional journey began in earnest in 1885 when she took over the embroidery department of her father’s company, Morris & Co., at the young age of 23. Her exceptional skills and innovative designs quickly garnered attention, and she became a leading figure in the company. Her work was characterized by intricate patterns, a keen attention to detail, and a deep appreciation for natural forms.

One of May’s most significant contributions to Morris & Co. was her development of freehand embroidery techniques. Unlike the rigid patterns of traditional embroidery, May’s approach allowed for greater fluidity and expression, resulting in more dynamic and organic designs. This technique became a hallmark of her work and a distinguishing feature of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

May’s designs were not limited to textiles; she also created exquisite jewelry and metalwork. Her versatility and mastery of various mediums demonstrated her profound understanding of design principles and her commitment to craftsmanship.

Advocacy and Influence
Beyond her artistic achievements, May Morris was a passionate advocate for the applied arts and a staunch supporter of women’s rights. She believed in the importance of education and mentorship, often teaching embroidery classes and writing extensively about design. In 1907, she published “Decorative Needlework,” a seminal text that detailed her techniques and philosophies on embroidery.

May was also a key figure in the Suffragette movement, using her platform to champion women’s rights and gender equality. She believed that women should have the same opportunities as men to pursue careers in the arts and was an active member of the Women’s Guild of Arts, an organization dedicated to supporting female artists and craftswomen.

Legacy and Recognition
May Morris’s influence extended far beyond her lifetime. Her dedication to the Arts and Crafts movement and her efforts to elevate the status of women in design left an indelible mark on the field. Today, her work is celebrated in museums and galleries around the world, and her contributions are recognized as foundational to the development of modern textile art.

The Royal Academy of Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago have both hosted exhibitions dedicated to May Morris, showcasing her intricate designs and highlighting her role as a trailblazer in the arts. These exhibitions have helped to reframe her legacy, not just as the daughter of William Morris, but as a remarkable artist and advocate in her own right.

May Morris’s life and work continue to inspire new generations of designers. At Optima®, we are proud to honor her legacy and to draw inspiration from her remarkable achievements. She remains a shining example of how passion, talent, and determination can create lasting change in the world of design.