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The Decriminalization of Ornament

by on April 13, 2011

In this article, Alice Twemlow discusses the thoughts of designers who are for the use of ornament. She states “ornament is clearly an integral part of the dominant visual language of the moment.”  Decorative elements can sometimes speak much louder than words and have a much more powerful message.  Throughout the reading, she addresses the questions:  what has happened to allow for this decriminalization of ornament and what is the deeper significance of ornament?  To begin, ornamentation has always been a subject of debate and the development of machines has made this debate more complicated.  In graphic Design, decoration is design taboo.  However, when done well, it is regarded good-taste in the eyes of craftsmen.


Before, some artist saw ornament as a waste of manpower, health, materials and capital. Others think however, that to use ornament, it has to have detailed instructions such as the placement of colors and hues.  In type design, “Goudy designed Kennerley in response to what he described as ‘a real need for types for decorative printing’ and Dwiggins used ornaments to design his book covers.”  In comparison to modern times, I believe it is a revival of style.  Before, much ornamentation required hand rendering. Now computers aid the detail process thus perfecting decoration. It is the intricacy of decoration suggests that more detail is paid to the craft making.  However, like Armin Vit states, the use of ornamentation needs to be used in a balance of obsessive compulsiveness and acute sense of style where the artist knows when to stop.


Another good point to bring up is that of Louise Schouwenberg’s:  “freed from its negative connotations, craftsmanship can be valued for the psychological effect it exerts on its user: it not only refers to a slower pace, but also implants this deceleration, and the implied attention to detail into the product.”  I agree that ornamentation is successful in this regard because it draws one in to look closer at the detail and meaning of a work. It does not mean necessarily that the message of the piece is unclear, but that is has a more significant meaning, something deeper. Finally, it has been mentioned that decoration is something historically gendered as feminine.  I don’t know how I really feel about this because there are male designers that use ornamentation and to use it means it has to appeal to them in someway. However, I can see males rebelling more against decoration more than females because they are more inclined to get straight to the point where as females look for more meaning and deeper context.



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