The Art of Decorative Design

The Art of Decorative Design

The Art of Decorative Design

While searching for a deeper understanding of the definition of Ornament, my research led me to the works of Christopher Dresser, specifically his title “The Art of Decorative Design” which he first published in 1862.

I previously encountered Dresser’s work and artistic view while discussing Steven Durant’s “Ornament, A Survey of Decoration Since 1830“.  Dresser was of the view that Nature should always be what he called “Conventionalized.” Also, Dresser was strongly in favour of Artists and Designers studying Botany, not for scientific purposes, but for observational purposes.

According to Oshinsky’s biography of Dresser,  he shared some common views with William Morris, who both were popular designers at that time and were the same age.  Both Dresser and Morris aimed to design affordable and functional objects.  The core difference between the two designers was that Dresser embraced the mass production offered by industrialisation and therefore was able to produce more quantities of product.  Morris on the other hand was in favour of hand-crafted objects.

Wave Bowl by Christopher Dresser (1880)

Wave Bowl by Christopher Dresser (1880)

Side Chair by Christopher Dresser (1870)

Side Chair by Christopher Dresser (1870)

Dresser, according to the British Council’s Design Museum biography, believed that there was:

“nothing superfluous in nature, where every beautiful thing had simplicity of form and a clear function.”

On the topic of Ornament, it was Dresser’s opinion that an object possessed less appeal without Ornament applied.  The Ornament, he argued, gave the object appeal and beauty, more than in its original condition.

Dresser continues his discussion of the use of Nature and suggests that Nature can be a source of inspiration.  Furthermore, Dresser states that Nature can be used to adorn everyday objects and that this decoration will result in a positive experience.  The Author states at (pp 2):

“Following the dictates of nature and acting in conformity with the spirit of a beautiful creation, we make upon those objects with which we surround ourselves, forms and lines, convolutions and zigzags, and give to them colours and shades which yield pleasure to our minds.”

Wallpaper by Christopher Dresser

Wallpaper by Christopher Dresser

Dresser argues that no matter what social background we are from, we all desire pleasurable emotions within our surrounding environments.  This pleasure can come through any of the five senses (sight, sound, etc.)  Dresser states that this pleasurable experience interact with our body’s nervous system and relays the information to the brain.

However, Dresser specifies that in order for this pleasure to be experienced, the viewer must have the knowledge on how to perceive an object.  Therefore, if someone does not understand an object, then it may not see its beauty and establish the pleasurable experience.


Having previously encountered Dresser’s works, I was familiar with his opinions and the high regard he had for Nature.

Having researched his works in more depth, I found that I have more appreciation for him as an artist.

I aspire to incorporate Nature into my research and possibly my final piece(s) and it is reassuring to study Artists like Dresser, who spoke so highly of the beauty and emotional dimension offered by it.  I also aim to produce ornate forms that viewers will recognise and emotionally relate to.  This may be achieved as Dresser states, by using Colour, Structure, Texture, Form or all of the above.

Furthermore, Dresser’s thoughts on the importance of everyday objects providing beauty and emotion to their users is something I will spend more time considering.  I found this to be particularly interesting and further research led me to review a research paper about Dresser by Ceramic Artist, Wendy Walgate.

In that paper, entitled “Christopher Dresser: Influences and Impact of a Victorian Visionary“, Walgate states at (pp 22):

“He (Dresser) stated that one must decide which elements of ornamental composition (form, colour, and surface decoration) to incorporate into an object in order to evoke the terms ‘soothing’, ‘ethereal’, ‘solid’ or ‘melancholy.’.

He suggested that spiky forms were ‘more or less exciting’ and bold or broad forms ‘were soothing or tend to give repose.’

He also suggested that the objects in a room should harmonize to produce a sense of ‘repose,’ since ‘in these days of competition, when the brain is ever active, and the nerve force is kept of many hours together in constant play, it is peculiarly desirable that our rooms be soothing in effect and snugy in appearance.’ “

This discussion and these design principles which Walgate references as coming from Dresser’s title “Principles of Decorative Design“, that he published in 1873.

The full list of these Design Principles which seem to consider the emotional impact of an adorned object may require further investigation.


Dresser, C. “The Art Of Decorative Design,” London, Day and Son, 1862.

Oshinsky, Sara J. “Christopher Dresser (1834–1904)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

Walgate, W. “Christopher Dresser: Influences and Impact of a Victorian Visionary“, University of Toronto, 2003,, Last Accessed Jan 09, 2012.


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