Twentieth Century Ornament

Twentieth-Century Ornament

Twentieth Century Ornament, Jonathan M. Woodham.

Jonathan M. Woodham in his studies, discusses how Ornament is ever evolving in today’s consumer-led society.  Many influences contribute to the heightened appeal of ornament.  How it appeals to society of all classes through the mediums it is used and in abundance.

The Author refers to new canvases that are having Ornamentation applied to them such as automobiles, domestic appliances, and packaging.  He states that these areas are no less significant than the traditional ways where Ornamentation has been applied in the past (interiors, furniture, etc.)

“Ornament has been, and is likely to remain, an essential and meaningful part of almost every aspect of everyday life” (pp 7).

Woodham then explores the many meanings associated with Ornamentation.  He suggests that Ornamentation is used to “convey ideas and expectations of warmth” in the home, or it can be used by business to convey prestige by incorporating “established classical forms“, or it can be used by hotels to emit a elaborate luxury.

Woodham suggests that Ornamentation can also be used to indicate:

  1. Power
  2. Wealth
  3. Refinement
  4. Education
  5. Exoticism
  6. Contemporaneity
  7. Individuality
  8. Social conformity

Woodham believes that Ornament has been used in some of the ways listed above, by people from all walks of life, regardless of their “wealth, race, class or gender.”  This may suggest that Ornament is a common language that is welcoming and understood by all.

Woodham also suggests that Ornamentation viewable in public spaces such as shopping centres and cinemas, provides a visual stimulus to the public.  Television, Cinema and Advertising in particular, Woodham suggests have had a huge influence on the stylings of the Twentieth century.

Another area where Ornament has been used in the Twentieth century is in mass-product of consumer goods.  According to Woodham this has been to increase sales.  As these ornamented items have become increasingly used by their owners, sometimes many times a day, the decorative features have become more relevant to the owner.

Although Woodham states that the Western styles of Ornament have dominated much of the Twentieth century, he believes that the previous fifteen years (1975-1990) has seen much more diverse and range of Ornament introduced to the world.  He says this is due to “Flexible Manufacturing Systems” which can produce limited or specialised ranges for specific markets while still keeping the manufacturing costs down.

The Author then discusses the evolving Ornamental trends for the twentieth century.  The 1920’s and 1930’s he says were linked to the output of Art Deco.  This included “decorative inlays of furniture” as well as “brightly coloured geometric patterns.”

Art Deco

Modernism followed, which according to Woodham, was opposed to Ornament.

And more recently, Post-Modernism, which Woodham says references many different styles and motifs.

Woodham suggests that Ornaments have an important meaning.  That they are a tool which contains “social and cultural values.”  These values however are often taken advantage of by manufactures and their mass production can ruin this cultural value.

“As goods become more widely available they generally lose the conviction of their original message and content, becoming instead routes to profitability rather than conveyers of ideology” (pp 9).

I believe the Author is saying that there is a loss of the craftsmanship through mass production.  This may suggest that the identity and quality of the design is lost in the process. It loses its uniqueness and is left with no original meaning as an ornate object.

Woodham then considers Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” and Loos’ general position on Ornamentation.  In Woodham’s opinion, Loos was a progressive designer who contributed to design of the twentieth-century.  Woodham states that Loos was opposed to the Deutscher Werkbund, an organisation founded in Munich, Germany in 1907. The Deutscher Werkbund’s aim was to incorporate ornamentation and decoration into mass-producible objects, heavily basing their works on the British Arts & Crafts movement.  Loos was also opposed to the Wiener Werkstätte, an organisation founded in 1903 in Vienna that had similar interest in decoration as the Werkbund, but those interests were less industrial and more like a community arts project.  Both of these organisations were the subject of attack in Loos’ famous “Ornament and Crime.”  Woodham summarises Loos’ opposition to Ornament and any designer that would utilise ornamentation in their work as backward.

“For him ‘the modern ornamentalist’ was ‘either a cultural laggard or a pathological case.” (pp 24)

Woodham then discusses how transatlantic travel and the wealthy status that came with it, led to Ornamentation being preserved.  Lavishly decorated cruise-liners like Cunard Line’s Mauretania featured “historicizing European styles in its interior design.”  According the Woodham, some cruise-liners such as the North German Lloyd Line’s Kronprinzessen Cecilie, featured several first-class Modern-themed rooms but these were not successful as the consumers at that time did not see Modernism as being anywhere related to glamorous.

The Author lastly discusses the 1990’s and how Ornament is relevant and important in that time.

Woodham says that

“Ornament is very much a dominant part of everyday life in the late 1980’s, whether in terms of personal adornment, domestic interiors, the design of retailing outlets, the forms and decoration of major architectural commissions, or many other aspects of the environment.” (pp 313)

The Author talks about the mass transit systems of London and San Francisco, and how they have been transformed both by commissioned artists and graffiti artist also.  As well as public space ornamentation like graffiti or commissioned art, Woodhard believes that Clothing, hairstyles, make-up and jewelry have, over the previous 30 years “witnessed a dramatic increase in scope.”

Jewelry in particular is a form of Ornament that the Author singles out for discussion.  He states that artists such as Emmy van Leersum and Gijs Bakker are exploring the relationship Jewelry has with the body, while artists such as Claus Bury and Caroline Broadhead are experimenting with new forms and materials.

The Author even suggests that T-shirts, something he believes is a “medium for communication” and has greatly grown in terms of its decoration.

Woodham concludes this discussion by stating that, as we have freed ourselves from the constraints and austerity of “Modernist-inherited creed” there are a lot of messages to consider.  “Messages about self, society or culture.

Woodham is unsure as to whether these are “significant signs” of contemporary, original design or are results of mass-marketing to sell products.


I found Woodham’s discussion of Ornament in the twentieth-century to be comprehensive.

His insights into travel and its impact on the style of the times are interesting and something I will take time to observe for myself as I travel through public spaces.

His discussion on Loos’ objection to Ornament was also interesting as this led me to research deeper into the two design organisations that Loos’ was speaking out against.

His discussion of how technology is used by Hollywood to push trends through the mass-media was also interesting.  It seems that technology has a lot of control and sway over what consumers buy and the current status of trends.


Woodham, J. (1990), “Twentieth Century Ornament,” Rizzoli, New York.