On Ornament

Ornament is anything done to an existing object for the sole purpose of adding beauty.
If an acanthus leaf is added to a chair, it is ornament. If an acanthus leaf is made separately it is transformed, through the vague metaphysics of human thought, into fine art.

Evidently, the definition of ornament is broad. The first and primary connotation many people (myself included) have with ornamentation is old-fashioned in nature: the many curls, flourishes, swashes, abstracted botanics, and so forth, adorning anything older than a century, from buildings to books.

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Our thoughts about ornament as a whole are rooted in history, and as such, we now only use ornament when we attempt to make something feel historic.
The only companies that would still use an ornamental typeface for a logo in today’s market are those that attempt to replicate the feeling of ye olden days. Big tech companies obviously gravitate to a contemporary or even futuristic look, but even carpenters and cleaning services prefer a sans-serif typeface with an abstract mark, for fear of seeming outdated.

Why? Because of modernism. Adolf Loos, Austrian architect and no-nonsense thinker, declared in a 1910 lecture that “Ornament is Crime”. He called ornament “the unnecessary labor” - why waste hours, weeks, years, in a vain attempt to make things pretty, while humanity struggles with disease, hunger, war, and tragedy? Human labor ought to be used for the advancement of humanity, not for the pleasing of ignorant eyes. He went even further by declaring those favoring ornament as “degenerates” - blinded by the pursuit of pleasure, unable to find the true path forward.

His philosophy gained traction among the Western world, partially due to new construction materials such as concrete and steel, but mostly because of a general wave of new thinkers, disillusioned with traditionalism.
It was during these days of the early 20th century that the concept of ‘function-over-form’ truly took hold of society. If form was considered at all, it concentrated more on minimalism and abstraction: creating beauty without the use of man-made ornament (ornament created by nature, such as the grain of wood, was acceptable).

Obviously, Adolf’s ideas, much like another Adolf’s ideas, were based on misconceptions about the nature of the human race. In Adolf Loos’ case, he seemed to be under the impression that man’s greater good lies in the hands of economic productivity and industrial efficiency.
Some 100 years later, it has become clear that this isn’t always the case. Although our standard of living has increased tremendously, I doubt that this is due to our abstinence from ornament.
Besides, economic prosperity and capitalism have brought us as many problems as they solved. While every household (in the Western world) has a fridge and running water, we are also faced with grand problems such as inconceivably unjust distribution of wealth among the populace as well as the utter annihilation of society due to ecological catastrophe.

I am not pleading that if we had simply kept on carving pretty flowers into our buildings, our current situation would be much different. Rather, I am trying to point out that ornament shouldn’t be undesirable merely because of philosophical reasoning.

What’s more, it seems that our world knows less and less “necessary labor”. Automatization is ensuring that fewer people than ever have a meaningful position to fulfil.
Jobs get ‘invented’ for the sake of economic growth. People are paid (albeit minimally) to stand at the door of a walmart and, with a pained soul, welcome customers to the company store.

Let’s take a step back here and look at what brings value to human society. Not economic value, but “making-life-less-shitty-altogether” value. Does ornament make our lives better? Yes.
Of course: beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. “Everything is art”, is often claimed by misinformed fools. This statement kills the conversation. I sincerely believe that the majority of people enjoy to behold well executed ornament, and reject pure function over form.
Certainly there are people who disagree and who truly prefer large unbroken surfaces of cement and glass. These people often have architecture, urban planning, or design degrees and have esoteric opinions on what the masses should want.

The early 19th century Victorian and Edwardian school of design aimed to overwhelm an object with so much ornament that it shouts for attention at the top of its lungs. More so, the ornament took priority over the purpose of the object. Typographically, this meant a different typeface for every sentence, surrounded by flourishes, drowning the intended message (such as in the ephemera above). Architecturally, a focus on the details meant at times losing sight of the bigger picture, and therefore a pleasing composition, as well as a loss of practical considerations such as usability.
Jan Tschichold, modernist designer and typographer (well known for the penguin book covers, among other things), saw how the message suffered from the presentation. He fought to bring layout, hierarchy, weight - in a word, logic, back to design.
I find his thoughts on the subject irrefutable.

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The above paragraph serves as a disclaimer that I am not a misinformed fool myself*: I understand that there can be too much of a good thing. The inclusion of ornamentation needs to be considered with a clear and unbiased mind. Surely, there are situations where its very presence would be distracting from what’s important, such as on a traffic sign.
Other times, its absence will lead to a feeling of emptiness and melancholy, such as in a contemporary apartment complex.

I, for one, think that ornament ought to be held in higher regard in today’s schools of design. Ornament brings pleasure to the maker as much as to the beholder. And to quote Jan Tschichold himself:
“Beauty is the visual expression of man’s pleasure in labor”


* That’s a lie: I am a misinformed fool.