Decriminalisation of Ornament

Next on my research reading list is Alice Twemlow’s The Decriminalization of Ornament.

Written in 2005 for Eye Magazine, it is a contemporary reply to Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime.

The author is very quick to state that Ornament has an important role to play in today’s society.  That of a visual language.

“Ornament is clearly an integral part of the dominant visual language of the moment.”

As cases in point, Twemlow points to the works of Dutch designer Tord Boontje, and the extent of the success of his filigree light shades sold at Habitat.

Tord Lampshade

Tord Lampshade

The author then points to further examples of the popular resurgence of decorative detail across the contemporary design climate.

“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.”

Twemlow then asks the question, what has changed in the design world, that has led to a relaxing of opinions and even welcoming of Ornament, and considers the long-term implications.

The Author then examines the fluctuations of Ornamentation’s popularity, from “good to bad and back to good again, possibly.”  Twemlow states that the roles of nature, history and sources from outside of Europe were all hotly debated subjects within the design world of the mid 19th century.  Twemlow cites the mass production of decorative detail as further complicating the great design debate, making Ornamentation more commonplace and less appreciated.

This mass availability of Ornamentation led to the design debate changing to question whether these objects were still ornate, and whether these commercial products were still of ornamental value.

The most critical designer of that time who was against the use of Decoration, was, according to Twemlow, Austrian designer Adolf Loos.  Twemlow summarises Loos’ argument as follows:

“In his view, Ornament was a waste of man-power, 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.'”

Twemlow concludes that Loos and other members of the design cognoscenti of the time led to the growth of Modernism and that also led to a decline in the use of Ornamentation for architecture, industrial design and graphic design.  This was to remain the case for a good duration of the 20th  century.

Twemlow then discusses the possibility that Ornamentation’s resurgence is attributed to it simply rotating into fashion, as it is starkly contrasting to the previous trend of neo-Modernism of the early 2000’s.

However, she discounts this and believes that there is something deeper going on.  She cites the usage of pre-industrial, often rural landscapes and the use of animals (stags and owls in particular) as clues to what she is trying to discover.

“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.”

The author is quick to point out that she does not believe this is a rotation into Ornate style, but that Ornamentation is being applied to the neo-Modernism trends of the early 2000’s.

Twemlow delves deeper, stating that she believes a subtler celebration of uselessness is apparent in contemporary Ornamentation.

The author further examines the contemporary works, and believes that the ornate elements are not prescribed from some stock listing but are instead born out of the design piece itself.  As if the decorative elements are a voice, that transmit a story or history or both.

“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.”

The makers are then examined by the author.  Twemlow looks at what is needed to make an Ornamented piece, and cites Armin Vit as stating:

“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 physically – with the making of the thing.”

Twemlow summarises that craft, decoration and ornament have a symbiotic relationship, and suggests that this applies and translates quite well into the digital craft design.  With the use of technology as a tool, contemporary designers can access greater detail and have a finer degree of control over the finished product, in contrast to previous eras where the design plate may have been handed off to a number of other cogs in the design wheel (e.g. lithographer, printmaker, etc.)

With respect to the purpose, rational or justification of Decoration, Twemlow quotes Gonzales Crisp as saying that:

“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.”

Gonzales Crisp believes that the exciting element of Decorational work is in its “complexity” and can also be about “establishing empathy or providing escape.”

In closing, Twemlow suggests that decoration, pattern and ornament shall survive their supposed pendulum trend rotation as they offer contemporary designers options that differ from the established view that a designer is simply a:

“solver of problems and a simplifier of things.”

Twemlow’s full text can be read here: link.


Twemlow, A. ‘The Decriminalization of Ornament,’ Eye, No. 58, Vol. 15 edited by John L. Walters, Haymarket, London, Winter 2005.


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