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Design in the Archives

Taste, copyright and the decorative arts

‘There is a morbid craving in the public mind for novelty as mere novelty, without regard to intrinsic goodness . . . We also believe that the rage for novelty is the main support of the piratical designer.’
So wrote a commentator in the first issue of the Journal of Manufactures in 1849, edited by Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave, two leading nineteenth-century design reformers. 
Concern about the quality of British design and its ability to compete in the markets led to the setting up in 1835 of a Select Committee to examine the issues. It made three key recommendations. Schools of design should be set up; museums and galleries should be made accessible to all sections of society; and a copyright system should be established for all ornamental designs.
The National Archives has almost three million designs that were registered for copyright between 1839 and 1991 as a result of this third recommendation. It was believed that establishing a system of copyright would encourage manufacturers to invest in high-quality designs and well-trained designers, safe in the knowledge that their work would not be pirated almost immediately and the pirated designs sold more cheaply. Consumers would be exposed to more examples of well-designed products and start to demand them.
Pasted into enormous leather-bound volumes at the Designs Registry, established by the Designs Registration Act of 1839, are ‘representations’ of designs submitted as part of the copyright application process – drawings, photographs, samples, or sometimes whole objects, like hats or gloves. They form a form a huge and unique resource for the study of design history. Separate registers record the name and address of the copyright holder, or proprietor, the registered design number and date of registration, and sometimes a brief description of the object registered. 
Wallpapers and textiles by designers associated with design reform vividly demonstrate their belief that everyday objects had as much right to be considered works of art as the ‘fine arts’ of sculpture and painting. By studying these designs, registered under the subsequent Ornamental Designs Act of 1842, covering the period up to 1883, we can see how their design precepts translated into practice; how ideas about ‘good’ or ‘correct’ design evolved and changed over that period; and reflect on issues around the attribution of design, since the names of the designers themselves were not entered as part of the registration process.

Julie Halls, The National Archives

Note: The AHRC funded cataloguing of BT 43 (designs from 1839 to 1883) which means they can now be searched by item on The National Archives’ online catalogue, Discovery. See The National Archives’ online research guide on registered designs for more information. See more images at The National Archives Image Library.

 

  • Image of Wallpaper designed by A W N Pugin
    Wallpaper designed by A W N Pugin about Wallpaper designed by A W N Pugin
  • Image of Textile designed by A W N Pugin
    Textile designed by A W N Pugin about Textile designed by A W N Pugin
  • Image of Wallpaper registered by Heywood, Higginbottom, Smith & Co on 22 May 1851
    Wallpaper registered by Heywood, Higginbottom, Smith & Co on 22 May 1851 about Wallpaper registered by Heywood, Higginbottom, Smith & Co on 22 May 1851
  • Image of ‘Moresque’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones
    ‘Moresque’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones about ‘Moresque’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones
  • Image of ‘Persian sprig’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones
    ‘Persian sprig’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones about ‘Persian sprig’ wallpaper designed by Owen Jones
  • Image of ‘Daisy’ wallpaper designed by William Morris
    ‘Daisy’ wallpaper designed by William Morris about ‘Daisy’ wallpaper designed by William Morris
  • Image of ‘Anemone’ furniture fabric design by William Morris
    ‘Anemone’ furniture fabric design by William Morris about ‘Anemone’ furniture fabric design by William Morris
  • Image of ‘Peacock’ wallpaper dado designed by E W Godwin
    ‘Peacock’ wallpaper dado designed by E W Godwin about ‘Peacock’ wallpaper dado designed by E W Godwin
  • Image of ‘Star’ wallpaper by designed by E W Godwin
    ‘Star’ wallpaper by designed by E W Godwin about ‘Star’ wallpaper by designed by E W Godwin
  • Image of Swan, rush and iris design for a wallpaper dado by Walter Crane
    Swan, rush and iris design for a wallpaper dado by Walter Crane about Swan, rush and iris design for a wallpaper dado by Walter Crane
  • Image of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ wallpaper designed by Walter Crane
    ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ wallpaper designed by Walter Crane about ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ wallpaper designed by Walter Crane
  • Image of Woven silk fabric registered by William Fry & Co on 20 December 1876
    Woven silk fabric registered by William Fry & Co on 20 December 1876 about Woven silk fabric registered by William Fry & Co on 20 December 1876
  • Image of Textile sample registered by H C McCrea & Co on 1 June 1875
    Textile sample registered by H C McCrea & Co on 1 June 1875 about Textile sample registered by H C McCrea & Co on 1 June 1875
  • Image of ‘The Sunflower’ wallpaper designed by Bruce Talbert
    ‘The Sunflower’ wallpaper designed by Bruce Talbert about ‘The Sunflower’ wallpaper designed by Bruce Talbert
  • Image of ‘Indian’ wallpaper designed by Christopher Dresser
    ‘Indian’ wallpaper designed by Christopher Dresser about ‘Indian’ wallpaper designed by Christopher Dresser