The Decriminalisation of Ornament

Spurned and marginalised for more than a century, decoration is enjoying a guilt-free renaissance

First published in Eye no. 58 vol. 15, Winter 2005. Republished online here


In 2005, I reflected on decoration and ornamentation in graphic design for the graphic design journal Eye. The essay republished here includes some additions made in 2016 which consider the role of pattern and ornament in dodging or deflecting digital surveillance. 




– In which tendrils creep, petals unfurl and geometric patterns abound

Matter, a small design and homewares store in Brooklyn, has a logo that is able to change so that, according to Jamie Gray, the store owner, it will always “reflect the times.” Right now this adaptable logo is an ornate graphic flourish. At the centre of the heraldic device is the store’s initial letter with a crown hovering above it and its address in a slanted spidery script dangling below. Symmetrically arranged around the central medallion are gothic-looking sprays of feathers and some looping vine tendrils that evoke the fluid calligraphic line found in Art Nouveau wrought ironwork.

Ornament is clearly an integral part of the dominant visual language of the moment. The extent to which it has resonated with the public at large can be judged by the ubiquitous presence in the homes of Habitat-shoppers of the Tord Boontje filigree light shade. In Copenhagen, earlier this year, an entire hotel was redesigned from the inside out, as part of a VW sponsored initiative called Project Fox. The carpets, wallpaper and furniture now teem with the kaleidoscopic explosions and fantasy pattern-scapes created by a group of designers and illustrators selected by the trend-conscious 

Berlin-based design publishers Die Gestalten. In Barcelona, too, the Maxalot Gallery has commissioned designers such as Hideki Inaba, Joshua Davis, eBoy and Rinzen to create a collection of wallpaper designs that, as they put it, “celebrates the re-birth of wallpaper.”

Dense patterns multiply and foliage unfurls across computer screens too, fuelled in part by improvements in Flash-based technologies. Mobile phone users can also paper their tiny screen-spaces with a Genevieve Gauckler or a Laurent Fétis design commissioned by companies including Yakuta Mobile Visuals.

In the past few years the pages we turn, the screens we summon, and the environments we visit are sprouting with decorative detail, geometric patterns, mandalas, fleurons, and the exploratory tendrils of lush flora. In a design climate that, for the larger part of a century, has been famously hostile to the generation, application or even mention of decoration, what has happened to allow for this decriminalisation of ornament discernible in today’s design practice and thinking? And, beyond the palpable trendiness of these recent reinvestigations, what is its deeper significance?


– In which we follow the fluctuations of ornamentation’s fortunes, from good to bad and back to good again, possibly

Ornament has had a turbulent past. For a considerable part of the last two centuries ornament has been the subject of debate in design, at least as it related to buildings and their interiors. In the mid-nineteenth century discussion focused on the meaning of decoration, its classification and its most appropriate uses and sources. The roles of nature, history and sources from outside Europe were all hotly contested. The development of machine-made decorative detail further complicated the debate. As ornamentation became a more affordable and thus widely available feature of everyday household items such as textiles, wallpapers, books, cups and saucers, so the discourse that surrounded it began to take on a more moral, social and even political tone. It became inextricably bound up in discussions of beauty and taste.

By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 – an event where the objects on display were, according to architectural historian Brent C. Brolin, “covered with clouds of putti, acres of acanthus, and cornucopiate harvests from the vegetable kingdom”ornament was in disgrace with the taste-making cognoscenti. There followed attempts to tame and codify decoration. The most famous and enduring of these was the architect Owen Jones’s didactic Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856, which laid out 37 propositions relating to the appropriate uses of decoration and pattern and showcased in brilliant colour (made possible by the recent introduction of chromolithography) thousands of examples of ornament from around the world. Owens believed that, “All ornament should be based on geometrical construction,” and gave very detailed instructions concerning the use and placement of colours and hues. He forbade the use of “flowers or other natural objects” unless they were “conventional representations […] sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended images to the mind, without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate.” Such passionate commitment to the cause of using ornamentation correctly was not uncommon in this mid-nineteenth century period of design reform. John Ruskin’s writings about ornament were also shot through with similar concerns. And the moral tone of the critiques was further honed in the early twentieth century by the belief among avant-garde circles that products that disguised their modes of construction with ornament were dishonest and, therefore, fundamentally flawed. The moral resistance to ornamentation found its most vehement spokesperson in Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who in 1908 published a diatribe against decoration, titled Ornament and Crime. In this text Loos uses stirring rhetoric to argue that cultural evolution and the progress of mankind was being hampered by ornament. In his view, ornament was a waste of manpower, health, materials and capital. “In a highly productive nation,” he wrote, “ornament is no longer a natural product of its culture, and therefore represents backwardness or even a degenerative tendency.”

The social and economic import of such beliefs fuelled modernism’s manifestos, teachings and practice. Ornament continued its long fall out of favour in architecture, industrial design and graphic design for the better part of the twentieth century. With postmodernism’s revivification of complexity, lent legitimacy by Robert Venturi’s writings in the 1960s and 1970s, ornament was granted a reprieve among design thinkers and makers. Even so, ornament has found it hard to shake its second-tier status within the cultural spectrum. It shared this space beyond the pale with the crafts, outsider art, popular or commercial art, and other obsessive or naïve creations such as the kinds of work depicted in Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx’s English Popular and Traditional Arts published in 1946 which showcased examples of indigenous crafts such as hand painted fairground signage, canal boat decoration, intricate lacework and straw dolls. 

And, even today, despite its proliferation and the emergence of discourse surrounding it, the use of decoration is still regarded by mainstream graphic design as taboo – testimony to modernism’s enduring hegemony. A discussion about decoration on the design blog Speak Up, for example, saw the terms “candy,” “craving,” “fluff,” “indulge,” “eighth deadly sin,” “closet,” and “guilt”admittedly taken out of context hereflying around with telling regularity throughout the 62 posted comments.

For those willing to embrace decoration’s possibilities through graphic design, there are few historical references or figures to turn to for validation or inspiration. “Ornament has been the subject of debate since classical times in architecture,” says designer and educator Denise Gonzales Crisp, “but in graphic design it’s as if it was never discussed. It’s a stealth ideology.” Gonzales Crisp points to the American type designers W. A. Dwiggins and Frederic W. Goudy as designers who were thinking more deeply than most about decoration, but “that’s because ornament was allowed in type,” she says. Goudy designed Kennerley in response to what he described as “a real need for types for decorative printing,” and Dwiggins used celluloid or acetate stencils in which tiny elements were cut to create typographic ornaments for the surfaces of the books he designed.


– In which we wonder whether today’s interest in ornament as it relates to design is anything more than a vagary of fashion?

At first it looks as if ornament’s recent re-emergence in graphic design can be explained solely by the oscillations of stylethe need to find a visual currency as contrary and exotic as possible to the one that preceded it. The early 2000s saw the energies of contemporary practice channelled through what might be broadly characterised as neo-modernism. Among the genre’s defining characteristics were the deployment of systems that generated progeny celebrated for their ‘default’ qualities and the proliferation of manifestosthose modernist relicsdredged up for ironic reinterpretation. As with all fashionable statements, it is only a matter of time before the pendulum begins its return swing. Thus only a few short years later we find white spaces furnished with ornamental devices, serifs, borders and fleurons recalled from the dusty oblivion of archaic type specimens, and, replacing a largely urban and technological image-scape built from the visual language of computer software, and code, we find natural motifs and verdant foliage.

Evident in the decorative work of many contemporary practitioners is bizarre nostalgia for a rural past. Bizarre because much of this pattern- and ornament-rich work evokes a time and place that never wasneither part of the designers’ personal histories nor their cultural ones. Through the depiction of pastoral scenes, idealised pre-industrial landscapes populated with certain wild animals (the stag and the owl in particular) and by seeking recourse to the visual symbolism of heraldry, contemporary and largely urban designers appear to be trying to recreate a past and a rural idyll as an escape from the real urban present.

On closer inspection, however, that pendulum swing might not be a swing after all. The current fascination with ornament and decoration can be seen not as a reaction against, but rather as an addition to, the work and thinking of the turn-of-the century systems-obsessed designers. Certain tendencies unite the neo-modern and the neo-baroque as if they were part of one seamless continuing project. Discernible in both, for example, are similar levels of irony and the use of a set of knowing references directed at fellow designers that help distance the maker from their work and possible engagement with its subject matter. It is as if merely the palettes had been swapped outthe one with default type, blurry photographs of forgotten corners of everyday life, and compositions that, with a knowing wink, follow the templates in software programs, replaced by the one with serif and script faces, intensely detailed illustration, and dense patterns that evolve from the step-and-repeat function.

Something else is going on too, however, that may have more lasting implications for design. The other impulse running through this work is a kind of stubborn celebration of uselessness. The modernist-derived philosophy that has dominated twentieth-century design empties ornament of meaning and separates it from function, thus rendering it superfluous in the eyes of the canon. Knowing this, the fêting of ornament and the production of exuberantly excessive, dense, and sometimes exaggeratedly useless work, therefore, can be seen as a provocative thumbing of the nose to the approach to design advocated by many schools and professional organisations in which “problems” are “solved” by following a sequence of codified steps. As Gonzales Crisp puts it, “The decorative speaks to the people using design and not just the clients who commission it. The super-rational approach to design seems to be all about the clientthe idealised client.”


– In which we delve beneath the surface of things

Among this dense forest of fashionably ornamental graphic design is work that stands out because, in addition to the irreverence and fun, it brings complexity, meaningfulness and a seriousness of intent. Sometimes the decorative elements in a piece of work are not merely sampled from a palette of choices but emanate directly from content and are integrated at a deep level with concept. They do as much work as the word in communicating. What does it take, then, to produce this kind of work? It may have to do with the extent to which a designer is involved and obsessed, even, with what they do. Involved and obsessed mentally, as Armin Vit points out in the discussion on Speak Up stimulated by the subject of decoration, “Heavy ornamentation requires a type of character not found among many people. It’s a balance of obsessive compulsiveness, an acute sense of style and an understanding of when to stop.” But also involved and obsessed physicallywith the making of the thing. The relationship between craft and decoration and ornament is a longstanding and a close one. The Arts and Crafts movement helped to reinvest handcraft with social value. William Morris was famously opposed to the mechanisation of craft activity but, more recently, the design educator Malcolm McCullough has written about the idea of the computer as a craft tool. He extrapolates “digital craft” as “a blend of skill and intellect accompanied by a blend of work and play, use and beauty, tacit and codified knowledge.” The intricacy necessary to make patterns or construct ornament suggests more attention is paid to the craft of making and to detail. Gonzales Crisp also sees the computer as a key technology in the evolution of work that uses decoration in a meaningful way. “Amplification, complexity and detail are key to decoration,” she says, “and the computer lets you do that. You can noodle the heck out of anything now if you are inclined. It feels like this powerful tool that allows complexity that only craftspeople value. It re-introduces that connection to the making that maybe we lost with the über-designer handing off stuff for production to a typesetter, lithographer, platemaker and so on. It’s like it’s come full circle.”

In product design this connection between the decorative, detail, and craft is already acknowledged and is being probed. In this field there is an emphatic and renewed interest in the humanness of making, and the “tacit knowledge” of making to which McCullough refers. Critic Louise Schouwenberg writes in depth on the subject. “Freed from its negative connotations, craftsmanship can be valued for the psychological effect it exerts on its user: it not only refers to a slower pace, but also implants this deceleration, and the implied attention to detail, into the product,” she says. Detail is a contemporary concern of culture more generally, too. In her 1987 book Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, historian Naomi Schor posits that the detail, bounded on either side by the ornamental and the prosaic, is something historically gendered as feminine. She emphasises the ambivalent place that the detail and the feminine have held in traditional Western aesthetics. “For as any historian of ideas knows, the detail until very recently has been viewed in the West with suspicion if not downright hostility,” she says. She believes the “rare prominence” it is currently enjoying is thanks largely to poststructuralist thinking. 

Product designer Hella Jongerius, who has created an upholstery fabric for the New York textile store Maharam that has an unusually long repetitive pattern inspired by the jacquard cards (like early IBM computer main frame punch cards) that tell the loom what to weave, and reconfigures in herceramics and textiles archetypal patterns like pied-de-poule, stripes, birds and vines, talks of “the power of decoration, which can transcend the visual to take on a different meaning.” She embeds questions in her exaggeratedly ornate Swarovski chandelier so that the decoration is put to work and asks critical questions. Jongerius was a founding member of Dutch design collective Droog which in 1998 held an exhibition called “Inevitable Ornament”. This idea of an inevitable connection between ornament, form and content is something that graphic design is beginning to deal with right now. Gonzales Crisp has given this notion the label “deco rational.” By fusing these normally oppositional concepts, she attempts “to engage the discourse of ornament with that of rational design” and to suggest that, “function is completed by ornament.”

The decoration we’re seeing today is very particular to the time we live in. In many ways it’s dystopian. There’s the inclusion of urban, dark and ironic themes, as evident in Geoff McFetridge’s attitude-laden takes on patterning in three designs titled Red Dawn, Stoner Forest and All Yesterday’s Parties. The latter design features camouflage patterns overlaid with a pattern of party detritus (beer cans, bottles, and cigarette butts).Similarly, Daniël van der Velden and Maureen Mooren’s identity for the Holland Festival uses the argyle patterns that the typical middle-class festival-goer tends to wear as windows onto apocalyptic images and interweaves street trash with cathedral stained glass to create a tense critique of contemporary Dutch society. Even the voluptuous floral wall mural that extended the length of a block in the New York Prada store provided a frame for its own commentary. The installation was created in 1999 by design firm 2 x 4 in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and was among the first and most prominent of recent re-investigations of pattern. It uses the silhouettes of fullbodied leaves and flowers as windows for photographic images that reference what designer Karen Hsu describes as “Italianness, consumption, fashion, manufacturing, beauty, and sex.” 

“The rational aspect of the decorational is its capacity to tell, not only in a story-like way, but also in a metonymic way in the same way that icons do,” says Gonzales Crisp. If there’s a key or operative word to describe what’s exciting about the best decorational work, says the designer, then it’s “complexity.” She explains: “Life is very complex and much of graphic design’s time gets spent on refining and organising and making things clear. There are all kinds of ways to think about graphic design’s service, however. It can also be about establishing empathy or providing escape.”

What will give decoration, pattern and ornament life beyond that of their current popularity, then, is the fact that they provide designers with an alternative to orthodox views of design’s role as a solver of problems and a simplifier of things. They are strategies for thinking and making that have rich histories but that can be continually re-imagined. They can be used as framing devices or carriers for critical or narrative commentary. As Dutch designer Daniël van der Velden says, “Playfulness and layers, multiple narratives, embedding history, seeking relations, and also political implications are better expressed in a visual vocabulary less dogmatic and more rich than modernism.”

Omnivore, Tikki Fruits, Personal patterns by Karen Hsu

Volvox: a composite system of 5 fonts typeface system based on the natural aesthetics of scientific drawings, which grows more detailed as the characters are superimposed over each other. Designed by Andrea Tinnes in 2001.

Eboy Wallpaper

Filigree Light Shade, Tord Boontje, 2002