Many designers naturally have preferences and principles within their design practice. These personal principles come from their appreciation or dislike towards various influences, whether that be culturally or socially. The personal preferences and principles between designers differ, therefore provoking the debate “What is good design?”
The terms “good” and “design” are quite ambiguous when used together, hence causing a wide range of debate throughout the history of design which is still present today. The topic of good design seems to be indefinite due to the difficulty of deciding where the limitations are, as there are various factors that could constitute as elements of design. For that reason I wish to explore more specifically the constant conflict between ornament and form.
This inquiry is based on the hypothesis that ornamentation has no purpose in modern design. Ornament and decoration has been an issue since the early 1800’s. For example, Richard Redgrave’s essay “Utility which must be considered before ornamentation” expresses Redgrave’s anxiety that utility had not been the primary concern for the designer. A key essay that propelled these issues was Adolf Loos and his essay “Ornament is crime” written in 1908.
The aim of this dissertation is to discuss the demise of ornamentation and the continuous conflict between ornament and form in graphic design. It will also explore the reasons to why designers feel that ornament has no purpose. This conversation will not conclude in a manual of good design principles, is it neither a promotion nor protest against the use of ornamentation within design.
As I am looking at the reasoning behind the dislike towards ornamentation within modern design, I must look at what came before. As my hypnosis suggests, there was a time which ornament in design was accepted.
When researching into ornamentation and decoration in design, William Morris is one of the most recognizable designers, due to his significance within the Arts and Craft movement. Morris used ornamentation throughout his work and believed ornament to be a key design element and that “the ornament must form as much a part of the page as the type itself” (Poulson & Morris, 1996, p. 151)
Another member of the Arts and Craft movement was Walter Crane. Crane also used ornament within his work, however it appears that he was more relaxed regarding its uses than compared to Morris. In Bases of design, Crane(1898, p. 253) mentions this acceptance of how sometimes ornamentation needs to be removed.
“We may find the design wants simplifying, and have to strike out even some element of beauty. Such sacrifices are frequently necessary.”
The Arts and Craft movement became dominant during the Victorian period. Throughout this time surface design was highly cluttered, contained a lot of floral decoration and layouts contained very limited white space.
Ralph N. Wornum suggested that the reason for ornamentation was due to it being “one of the mind’s necessities, which it gratifies by means of the eye” (Wornum, 1856, pp. 2-3) Wornum then went on to suggest that this kind of gratification was important as it confirmed societies level of culture.
Christopher Dresser (Principles of Decorative Design, 1873) was also another member of the Arts and Craft movement. His work differed to that of Morris purely because Dresser accepted and appreciated the use of technology in the design process. Within his writing, Dresser expressed early ideas of functionalism. “Ornament depends on form, and form is determined by function” This statement mimics Louis Sullivan’s quote “Form ever follows function” which he coined in 1896.
During the 1800’s, there was a rise in the writing and printing of books that discussed ornamentation. James Ward wrote Historic Ornament, which spoke about the decline of ornament within the 17th century. Wards concerns were towards ideas of fashionable design. “Headpieces, Tailpieces, and printers devices or marks were now more in fashion, rather than the consideration of the design of the page as a whole decorative scheme.” (Ward, 1897, p. 407) The issue is not so much with the use of ornaments, but using ornaments without reason, therefore making the design fashionable rather than something that held meaning.
Ward was also a fan of Walter Cranes work suggesting that “The Sirens Three” was designed so that it “best fulfils the conditions of what a decorated page ought to be” (p. 410) however with this praise there is no clear explanation of what makes this design so great. This maybe due to the issue of the difficulty of understanding what good design actually is. Ward does explain what he considers poor design. “Picture illustrations…these are generally inserted, without any apparent order, on any part of the page, and the type matter filled into vacant spaces” (p. 411) this statement adds his clear dislike of fashion within design.
Richard Glazier, another writer of the 1800’s also was interested in the topic of ornamentation. Glazier defines ornamental design into two categories. “Elements of forms chosen for the sake of their significant” and “aesthetic ornament consists of forms or elements chosen for their beauty alone” (Glazier, 1899, p. 131) The aesthetic ornament is what James Ward is referring to when voicing his concerns about ornament and fashion.
Glazier also mentions the principles that are connected with these categories. Utility and fitness are considered part of ornamentation, as they are both “essentials in all good periods of ornamentation” (p. 131) This idea of utility and ornamentation being one contrasts to Dresser’s thoughts as he suggested that the look and the amount of ornament was something that happened naturally depending on an items function.
Into the 1900’s the conversation of ornament and decoration was a popular topic. Richard G. Hatton continued the idea that ornamentation was something that was and addition to an items surface, in his book Principles of Decoration. He felt that the “purpose of decoration is to make something interesting” (1925, p. 1)
Hatton has similar thoughts to that of Ralph Wornum, by referring to ornament to be a natural need. “The social purpose of decoration is to connect the world of our needs to the worlds of our thoughts” (p. 1)
As well as a need, and decorations emotional effect, Hatton goes on to explain that the same emotional needs can be met without ornamentation. (p. 65) This suggests that
ornamentation is something superficial if it doe not actually add or subtract anything from a design piece.
Within the principles and the manuals regarding ornamentation and its uses, there are frequent contractions throughout. These contractions also can be seen again in Hatton’s writing as he criticizes Owen Jones and the book The Grammar of Ornament, suggesting that Jones’s illustrations are “lifeless” (p. 216; Glazier, 1899) Considering both are in support of ornament is it odd to see this negativity towards Jones’s work.
Between the 1800’s to the 1900’s the published work surround ornamentation tends to be quite positive, until the publishing of Adolf Loos infamous essay Ornament is Crime. His essay did not only criticize ornament but also the society that appreciated it. Loos suggested that society needed to disregard ornament in design as, “evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from the objects of everyday use” (1929, p. 167). Society was a main concern for Loos, he urged the public that “ornament is not a source of increased pleasure in life” (p. 169) something which had been previously suggested by Ralph N. Wornum.
Loos was confident that the removal of ornament would create modern design and society. Perhaps this confidence and fresh take on design was what drew him so many followers.
Since this iconic essay there has been various books published regarding society and ornamentation. David Brett produced both On Decoration and Rethinking decoration. This suggests that the topic of ornament is a vast one and perhaps there are still gaps in the literature surrounding the subject. Brett explains that ornament can be used when “defining characteristics of specific cultures” (Brett, On Decoration, 1992) Following Loos essay, the removal led eventually to the International Style which was exactly that. This style made it very difficult to define where a piece of design came from, as it had no defining characteristics.
In Brett’s latter book, the theories of decorum, theology and progress relating to decoration are investigated. (2005) Brett describes the theory of progress, based on social evolution towards modernity, which is something that Adolf Loos was concerned about.
Paul Greenhalgh suggests that significant historical events have an impact of society and in turn have an effect on design. (1990, p. 9) Society began to be drawn to simplistic designs as it defined a new era. As well as this, the removal of decoration meant that products could be produced quicker, cheaper and for the masses.
Morris and Ruskin had wanted “good design available to all” (Clay, 2009) society also, however they did not appreciate the use of technology therefore causing their products to be expensive and slowly produced.
Greenhalgh implies that design and society go hand in hand. During the post, war period design was used as a tool to enforce positivity. Objects were created to be “proud of what they were and how they had arrived in the world” and that society should mirror this as “masses were encouraged to be proud of their origins” (p. 9) The idea of items showing their production methods is something that was not a new idea. Many designers such as William Morris believed the principle of truth within design.
Pamela Gaunt believes that the “perception of the decorative in modernism was a form devoid of meaning. Given this, its aesthetic value was not based on ornaments semantic capacity” (2010, p. 137)
I also agree with Gaunt’s ideas, as I believe at the height of decoration many additional ornaments were there for aesthetics rather than adding to the semiotic value of the piece. I do believe that this issue of mindless decoration still takes place occasionally today. However, I do also feel that in today’s design the principles behind decoration are a lot more obvious and that as a designer I am aware of the design work I produce, must carry meaning to reinforce the concept rather than be something superficial or fashionable.
Brett, D. (1992). On Decoration. Lutterworth Press.
Brett, D. (2005). Rethinking Decoration. Cambridge University Press.
Clay, R. (2009). Beautiful Thing: An Introduction to Design. Oxford: Berg.
Crane, W. (1898). Bases of Design. G. Bell.
Dresser, C. (1873). Principles of Decorative Design. New York: St. Martins Press. Gaunt, P. (2010). The Decorative in 20th Century Art. Germany: A Ktiengesellschaft & Co. Kg.
Glazier, R. (1899). A Manual of Historic Ornament. London: B.T.Batsford Limited. Greenhalgh, P. (1990). Modernism in Design. London: Reaktion.
Hatton, R. G. (1925). Principles of Decoration. London: Chapham & Hall Limited. Loos, A. (1929). Ornament is Crime.
Poulson, C., & Morris, W. (1996). William Morris on Art & Design. In W. Morris, The ideal book (p. 151). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
Ward, J. (1897). Historic Ornament. London: Chapham & Hall Limited.
Wornum, R. N. (1856). Analysis of Ornament , characteristics of styles; an introduction to the study of the history of ornamental art. London: Chapman & Hall Limited.