Marian Bantjes is a designer, typographer, writer and illustrator, but she’s most known for her ornamental patterns. In carving out a space for her intricate vector artwork, Bantjes says she’s had to fight against the stigma of ornamentation. In an interview with Debbie Millman, Bantjes explains that since the days of modernism, ornamentation has gotten a bad name. “There’s an association of ornamental work with frivolity,” explains Bantjes. “It's seen as an addition to something, and even possibly a detraction from something.”
Ornamentation versus Decoration
We often associate ornamentation with luxury and adornment – I think because the difference between decoration and ornament is overlooked. Decoration comes from “decorum,” which relates to societal order and the rules and values that uphold that order. Decoration was developed as a way of reinforcing values, ideals and manners through good taste and aesthetic principles.
Ornament, on the other hand, comes from the ancient Greek word “cosmos,” and the original purpose of ornamentation was to evoke natural forces and remind us the of the elements within the universe. To do this, the traditional ornamental forms and figures were mathematical designs. According to Bloomer and Jespersen, geometric shapes, zig zags, foliations and vectors were used to create a visual analogy between “a system of ornament and systems of nuclear, molecular and astrophysical order.”
Morality, Modernism & Minimalism
With the onset of the industrial revolution, ideas around ornament began to change. Machine manufacturing made ornamentation and decoration easier and cheaper than ever. Companies could create products elaborately adorned at prices that nearly everyone could afford. Unfortunately, the quality suffered.
Thus, the Arts and Crafts movement was born. Excessive ornamentation, decoration without purpose, poor construction and low-quality materials were some of the complaints of leaders of the movement, who celebrated craftsmanship and a return to making things by hand.
But while the Arts and Crafts movement rejected industrialized ornamentation, decoration and ornament were still core elements of design during the time. In fact, in The Problem with Ornament, Edwin Heathcote explains that many of the Arts and Crafts’ leading thinkers had a more nuanced approach to ornamentation. During the movement, there was a revival of traditional ornamental arts like embroidery, enameling and calligraphy, and there were several designers – Adolf Loos and John Ruskin, for example – who equated ornamentation with strong craftsmanship and design.
Nevertheless, the critique against ornamentation persisted and eventually grew in popularity as modernism began to displace Arts and Crafts. While Arts and Crafts rejected industrialization, modernism welcomed it with open arms in the hopes that a reconciliation with mass production would democratize art and design.
Like the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, modernists rejected cheap excess and appreciated craftsmanship, but they wanted a way to mass produce well-made things. If they could simplify forms and creating objects and buildings with no unnecessary elements, production would be cheaper. Artists and designers could spread their work more easily, and more classes of people could afford to purchase beautiful things. With modernism, the minimal aesthetic became a moral imperative. (A similar argument is used to support counterfeit or knock-off designs: stealing the designs of elite products democratizes style by allowing the masses to have access.)
But Heathcote sees the rise of simple design more as a fashion trend than a moral choice. “If decoration is suddenly cheap, then the plainer an object, the more valuable it suddenly becomes." In other words, minimalism isn't a democratizing force, it's a design trend that has helped facilitate mass production and a feverish consumption of goods that, as soon as the winds of fashion change, go from treasure to trash in seconds flat.
Resistance to Decoration
If Arts and Crafts wounded ornamentation, modernism dealt the final blow. The “century-and-a-half of the critique of ornament, that resistance to decoration in design, has become so embedded in our culture,” explains Headman. “We are now able only to approach the subject through irony or deliberate distance. Whether we think of the appliqué classicism of Postmodernism or the thin veneer of decorative facades engendered by digital production, ornament today is almost inevitably seen at a remove.”
For Heathcote, this is a huge loss. “Ornament is the language through which architecture communicates with a broader public,” he tells us. “Each remove puts another degree of separation between the profession and the public.”
Beyond architecture, the loss of ornament represents a seismic shift in our attitudes towards design. Ornamentation is rooted in geometric shapes and vectors that remind us of the mysteries of the cosmos – a marriage of structure and fluidity. When adorned with ornament, “the emptiness of a basic 'shape' is implicated with the forces of life.”
Through the decline of ornamentation, we also see the loss of craft and making things with our hands. William Morris, a founding designer in the Arts and Craft movement, felt that craft-based production allowed people to become more fully involved in the creative process and that manufacturing weakens our relationship with the results of our labour. Ruskin felt similarly, arguing that “separating the act of designing from the act of making was both socially and aesthetically damaging.”
Two hundred years ago, decoration and ornamentation were abundant and most things were made by hand by the person who was going to use it. Beading and embroidery, ornate carvings and hand-painted tessellations all seem like extravagant extras that you’d easily dispense with if you’re making everything yourself. Why when things were harder and more labour intensive to make do we see a higher commitment to decoration and expression? And what does that say about our connection to objects and the role of creativity and craft in our modern lives?
Perhaps it’s time to reexamine our worshipping of minimalism.