Ornament in Design

Not long I picked up an amazing book called “The Grammar of Ornament.” The book was published in the 19th century in Britain, and it presents a beautifully documented library of design ornament from around the world, from ancient societies ranging from Greece to Sumeria to Persia to Egypt and on to more recent designs from the Renaissance.

The designs are mostly from architectural features but include many abstract patterns, from tile or other embellishments, that could be applied to print and web design.

Clean, modern design usually sits best with me, especially since on the web you often see an explosion of design ornamentation in poor taste. I was taught in Design 101, like most Americans who have studied design in an academic setting, that modern design means cutting away extraneous elements. We go back to the Bauhaus, to the design of things that look like what they are, that are informed by their materials.

What is a kind of ornamentation that is compatible with clean, modern design? Ornamentation is not purely decorative: it has some very important functions.’

I love the spirit of the original Bauhaus, to strip away the barriers between craftsman and artist, to be in touch with the materials of use, to serve function before tradition. Designers should be aware of the constraints of the materials they use, and inspired by them. Yet there is a lot of bad design on the web, often because in an effort to show off the capabilities of fancy new techniques, the purpose of clearly and effectively communicating an idea gets lost. Materials shouldn’t supercede function.

So I have been thinking: what is a kind of ornamentation that is compatible with clean, modern design? Ornamentation is not purely decorative: it has some very important functions. It guides the eye, it highlights certain elements while downplaying others. It communicates certain aesthetic ideas, feelings, and sensibilities.

What I’m on the lookout for now, in examples and in brainstorming, is: what are the kinds of ornamentation (borders, page dividers, menu embellishments) that can work to the benefit of a design without throwing it back into a previous era of design, i.e. Victorian curlicues, Grecian borders, Celtic knots?

Where’s the “Grammar” of 20th and 21st-century ornament?

Or is it simply “no ornament”?

2 Responses

  1. Neil Uhl says:

    Look up Marian Bantjes for hyper-ornate and very modern. And of course postmodern design embraced “noise” as a form of decoration. In architecture, it seems that the whole form of the building can be ornamental (Gehry, Hadid; even Norman Foster’s triangular grids are driven by style as much as engineering)

  2. Justin Allen says:

    Thanks, Neil. I’ll look up Marian Bantjes. Seems like I’ve been seeing noise included in more websites recently … or simulated (test patterns, blueprints) and especially using a design grid as the visible background for a page.

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