WILLIAM Morris was one of those able and vigorous men that populated Victorian England. While some of them were building the empire, fostering the Industrial Revolution, or expanding commercial enterprises, Morris was pursuing a significantly different road. His life was one of constant creativity as designer, craftsman, writer, lecturer, merchant, socialist, printer, environmentalist, and pioneer in architectural preservation. His contributions to these fields were significant and often influential. He was devoted to beauty in nature and in the works of mankind, and to the promotion of a society in which mastery would be superseded by fellowship. He hated ugliness, the economic exploitation of human beings and of the environment, and the poor quality of goods often associated with mass production.
Morris was born in Walthamstow near London 150 years ago - hence the commemorations held this year here and in Britain. After leaving Oxford, he tried architecture and easel painting, but found that flat design suited him best; and, when he and his friends founded a firm in which recognized artists designed objects of use, he employed his talents designing wallpapers, printed and woven fabrics, embroideries, stained glass, tapestries, and carpets. Morris & Co. (1861-1940) also made furniture, but Morris did not design the Morris chairs made there. His purpose was to create functional objects of high quality and good design in a ''crusade against debased standards,'' and to improve popular taste by example and lecturing. By 1883 the mid-century cluttered interiors were beginning to retreat and the Arts and Crafts Movement was getting under way. In that year Morris & Co. exhibited many of its products at the big Boston Foreign Fair. Morris's advice was clear: ''Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.''
Eventually Morris realized that if his hope for improved taste, rewarding work, and attractive surroundings was to become the norm in England, a social revolution was needed to cure the vast social inequalities and the desperate poverty that were part of Victorian capitalism. He spent the last dozen years of his life as an active Socialist and critic of the status quo by voice and pen.
Between 1891 and his death in 1896 much of Morris's attention was given to book design, typography, and printing at his Kelmscott Press, named for his much-loved country house on the upper Thames west of Oxford. His two type designs were drawn from 15th-century models, as was the handmade paper on which 53 titles were printed by his presses. Decorated pages and initial letters, as well as his revival of the colophon, added to the unique appearance of these volumes, which caused enthusiasm in some and distaste in others. As examples of coherent design and meticulous printing, however, their influence has been great.
Morris's literary career began with colorful poems of love and violence in ''The Defence of Guenevere'' (1858), which reflect the influence of Malory and Froissart. His short stories written at that time show the same tendencies. He became famous with ''The Earthly Paradise'' (1868-70), in which he retold Greek and medieval legends in verse. ''Sigurd the Volsung'' (1876) was the result of his love of Icelandic sagas, which took him twice to Iceland.
In his last years he wrote his ''late romances'' - adventures in medievalistic lands of fantasy where the heroes or heroines perform deeds leading to maturity for themselves and social regeneration for others. They foreshadow the works of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and several have been published in paperback, including ''The Wood Beyond the World'' and ''The Well at the World's End.''
A few years earlier Morris published his two best-known prose works, ''A Dream of John Ball'' and ''News from Nowhere.'' In the first, Morris returns to 1381 and takes part in an incident in Wat Tyler's rebellion, after which he discusses with John Ball, one of the rebel leaders, man's age-old struggle against tyranny. In the other he visits England two centuries hence after a socialist revolution. It may be noted here that for nearly 30 years Morris's American publishers were Roberts Bros. of Boston.
For Morris, ''Art'' encompassed all the material aspects of life and the quality of life as well. ''It is the province of Art,'' he wrote, ''to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before (men), a life to which the perception and creation of beauty . . . shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread.'' And more forcefully: ''I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.'' Following Ruskin, Morris maintained that ''Art is man's expression of his joy in labour.'' Creating objects both useful and attractive would be ''a joy to the maker and the user.'' The creator and the consumer are one in the enjoyment of aesthetic utility.
As a skilled craftsman, Morris knew the joy of a job well done. As a businessman he engaged, and prevailed over, the purveyors of ''debased standards'' on the battlefield of capitalistic economy, which he felt destroyed both taste and lives. In contrast with the grim factories of dreary mill towns, his factory was set among the flowers of Surrey. He opposed enslaving the worker to the machine, but he approved of machines that lightened toil - labor-saving that truly saved the laborer. ''All men should have work to do which shall be worth doing and shall be pleasant to do''; machines could perform laborious and disagreeable tasks.
Morris's insistence on good quality and fine workmanship meant high prices for some, not all, of the firm's products, but he would not lower his standards. Instead he blamed the economic system that puts a price tag on excellence that many cannot pay. Such a system may be accepted automatically by most people, but not by the perceptive Morris.
A revival of interest in the life, works, and ideas of Morris got under way in the 1960s. Many of his designs for wallpapers and printed fabrics are available; literary scholars have found more meaning in his writings than earlier critics saw. Books and articles have increased, many exhibitions have been mounted, and the prices of Kelmscott Press volumes have soared. At the age of one hundred and fifty, Morris is surprisingly lively.
This then is a sketchy account of a great spirit well ahead of his time - wherefore he still lives and invites us to see through the self-serving specious rhetoric that surrounds us to his vision of vital sincerity.