While DGR's principal work was literary and (in the narrow sense) artistic, he was much involved with craft design work very early, even before he met William Morris and became a contributing partner in the 1861 Morris Marshall and Faulkner Co. venture. His earliest design work appears to be the decorated frames he conceived for his early pictures, and of course he continued to design his picture frames throughout his life. Then in the 1850s, and clearly under the influence of Ruskin, he expanded his work in the decorative arts. Some of his designs for furniture, wallpaper, tiles, and jewelry survive, and while we know he also designed clothing, these designs have not appeared. He also designed monograms and stationery for himself, his wife, Jane Morris, and others.
Besides his picture frames, Rossetti's most important design work was, first, in his designs for stained glass that he produced by Morris Marshall and Faulkner Co.; and second, in the book bindings he conceived for himself, his family, and friends. Though a relatively small corpus of work, these binding designs had a major impact on the renaissance of book and graphic design in England and America from 1880 onwards, and it spread even more widely into the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau.
The key binding designs are a group of seven or eight books he designed between 1861 and 1871. The sequence begins with an effort to develop a design that would achieve both simplicity and elegance through the use of standard commercial materials, including cloth boards. The influence of Japanese graphic design, which appears in various aspects of DGR's work in the 1860s, is especially clear in this work. In the key ten years when he was involved with the work DGR's designs exhibit an effort to find different ways of heightening the textural richness of his designs without sacrificing balance and simplicity. And of course in all cases he was intent upon marrying the binding design to the content of the particular book. In seeking his effects DGR sometimes incorporated illustrations into the book's design structure.
The first of his book designs was made for his own first book publication, The Early Italian Poets (1861), whose cover design established a model that he would play variations upon for the next ten years. (When DGR re-issued this book in its revised 1874 version Dante and his Circle the binding design was a modified version of the first design.) The design for his book of translations was followed in 1862 with the binding design that he produced for his sister's great work Goblin Market and other Poems. (He made as well a pair of internal illustrations for the book, a title page and a frontispiece. The binding design was modified slightly when the book was republished in 1865. Then came the following series of books: the design for his brother's translation of The Comedy of Dante Allighieri : part I--the Hell (1865): the binding design for Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon; the binding design for his sister's The Prince's Progress and other Poems (along with the illustrations for the frontispiece and the title page; the intense involvement with all aspects of the design for his own 1870 volume of Poems; and finally the binding design for Swinburne's Songs before Sunrise and for his sister Maria's A Shadow of Dante, whose binding design is one of the most elaborate (if not the most brilliant) he ever did. DGR's later works, the 1881 Poems and Ballads and Sonnets, simply adopt the binding design of the 1870 Poems.
DGR seems to have been involved with the design of a few other books as well: Thomas Gordon Hake's Parables and Tales (whose design seems to have been largely the work of Arthur Hughes); H. Buxton Forman's edition of Shelley, whose design DGR seems to have made originally for E. S. Dallas's 1866 volumes The Gay Science; and the cover design for the second edition of Alexander Gilchrist's life of William Blake, which DGR adapted from a design in the Blake notebook he owned.
Two of DGR's binding designs were left unused. These are a cover design for Allingham's 1854 Day and Night Songs (which Allingham adapted after DGR's death for the 1884 reprint of his book); and the binding design for WMR's 1869 edition of The Poetical Works of Shelley, which the publisher rejected.
The actual binding process for all or nearly all of DGR's key designs was the work of James Burn of Kirby Street, London. Burn worked for Smith and Elder, for Macmillan, and for F. S. Ellis, among others.
Articles of particular interest include:
Fredeman, “‘Woodman, Spare that Block’: The Published, Unpublished, and Projected Illustrations and Book Designs of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” JPRAS n.s. 5 (1996): 7-41.
Grieve, “The Applied Art of D. G. Rossetti--2. Book-Bindings.” Burlington Magazine 115 (1973): 79-83.
Barber, “Rossetti, Ricketts, and Some English Publishers' Bookbindings of the Nineties.” The Library. 5th series, 25 (1970): 314-330.