June 15, 2010 / 2:22 PM / 10 years ago

Past ideals resonate as UK's Red House hits 150

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Studied by architecture students worldwide for its impact on the history of design, Britain’s Red House celebrates the anniversary of its June 1860 completion amid renewed interior restoration efforts.

A couple stands in front of a well at Red House in Bexleyheath April 24, 2010. REUTERS/Julie Mollins

Commissioned by William Morris, the renowned 19th century socialist promoter of the arts and crafts, Red House was designed by Philip Webb, a leader of the English Domestic Revival architecture movement.

The distinctive, red brick house highlights a watershed period of design during which architects tried to revive a romanticized vision of old England by including such features as tall Tudor-style chimneys, asymmetrical compositions and Gothic elements in their buildings.

Webb experimented with an eclectic mix of styles to generate an influential new form of architecture.

“It looks back in terms of its appeal to medieval design qualities and concepts, but it also looks forward in that it anticipates a great deal of modern domestic architecture after 1860, which often shows a genetic link to early houses like Red House,” National Trust custodian Patrick Joel told Reuters.

“This is the cradle of the Arts-and-Crafts movement,” he added.

“While you can see the sequence from Morris and Webb’s Gothic interior through to Arts-and-Crafts principles later, they are not yet emergent at Red House.”

An important guiding concept in the Arts-and-Crafts movement, which arose in reaction to industrialization, was the revival of medieval methods of construction and a spirit of communal fellowship.

The practical functionalism of Red House influenced architects of the 1930s, as did Morris’s socialist ideals of a self-sufficient community.

All of the underlying principles to do with Morris’s design and politics emerge from the five years he spent at Red House, Joel said.

The house was built in a rural setting in Kent. Now it is surrounded by a garden protected by a wall on a residential street in the London suburb of Bexleyheath.

The site, protected since it was purchased in 2003 by Britain’s National Trust charity, offers contemporary visitors a picturesque respite from urban sprawl.

The most important project of the National Trust in relation to Red House is to research the interior and then populate it with all the things that were there 150 years ago, Joel said.

Excavation work has taken place to try and understand how the painted surfaces of the walls looked so that the interior can be represented with historical accuracy.

“The most important reason for doing research is because it gives us the opportunity to approach museums and private collections internationally to find out about borrowing or repatriating those items of moveable furniture, textiles, floor coverings, and musical instruments that Morris might have known while living here or might have been familiar with,” Joel said.

The apex of the L-shaped house, where Morris and his family lived for five years, is in a hallway with a staircase leading upstairs. Windows are positioned to serve the functional needs of the rooms rather than a symmetrical exterior appearance. A kitchen window was added for the household staff, an innovation at the time.

Morris, nowadays associated mainly with the decorative arts, was an author and translator of Icelandic sagas. His other talents included oil painting, stained glass, weaving, decorating, textile design, calligraphy, book binding, printing and poetry.

The Morrises moved into the house in June 1860 and began furnishing it — a project that led in 1861 to the formation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in London.

In 1877, Morris and Webb worked together to set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Morris’s vision of a community of artists living and working together didn’t work out, but his dream fueled the Arts-and-Crafts movement, Joel said, adding that “in terms of its practicalities as a home, Red House was a failure, but it highlights that there’s more to life than a constant focus on practical efficiencies.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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