Dresser was born in Glasgow, and from 1847 to 1854 studied at the Government School of design, Somerset House, where he was awarded a prize for a fabric design which was put into production by Liddiard and Co. He lectured on botany at the school before going on as a lecturer to the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington, specialising in botany. In 1856 he supplied a plate depicting the ‘geometrical arrangement of flowers’ for Owen Jones’ ‘Grammar of Ornament’. The Art Journal published a series of his lectures on ‘Botany as adapted to art and manufactures’ in 1857 and 1858, and in 1859-60 he wrote several books on botany and plant morphology, gaining a doctorate from the University of Jena in 1860. By 1862 he had established a studio of pupils at Chiswick and supplied a number of designs at the London International Exhibition. Dresser made drawings and purchases from Sir Rutherford Alcock’s collection of Japanese art, shown at the exhibition. In the same year his first design book was published: The Art of Decorative Design. Ceramics for Minton and Wedgwood, and carpets for Brinton’s were shown in Paris in 1867, metalwork for Coalbrookdale at London in 1871, and designs for eleven wallpaper companies exhibited at Paris in 1878. In 1876 Dresser visited the Philadelphia Exhibition, en route to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Government, to report on their art industries. He brought with him many gifts from the South Kensington Museum for the Emperor, and acted as a buying agent for Londos & Co. and Tiffany and Co. In 1879 he established Dresser and Holme, with the later editor of the Studio, importing Oriental goods; and Linthorpe Pottery, for which he provided radical new designs. His designs for metalwork for Hukin and Heath, first shown in 1879, James Dixon and Sons, and Elkington (for whom he had worked since the 1860s) reflected his Japanese experience in their simplicity. He established the Art Furnishers’ Alliance in 1880; worked as art editor at the Furniture Gazette from January to December 1881; and in 1882 published ‘Japan, It’s Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures’. After the collapse of the Alliance in 1883 Dresser moved to Sutton, Surrey, before returning to Barnes in 1889. He supplied designs to at least fifty companies, both in Britain and overseas. An anonymous article in ‘The Studio’ (1899) described him as ‘perhaps the greatest of commercial designers’.