Decoration has always been a theme of ideological clashes. Behind small frames and flowers, stuccoes and trimmings there is in fact an acrid battleground that sees the defenders of the natural anthropological instinct to ‘embellishment’ on the one hand and the supporters of the purity of the structure, free from any fake juxtaposition, on the other.
One of the fundamental texts for the history of ornament dates back more than a century and a half ago: it is called The Grammar of Ornament and was written in the middle of the Victorian era by Owen Jones. It is an encyclopedic selection of ornaments that date back to different historical periods and multiple geographical latitudes. A sort of compendium created to free artists from the fashion of the slavish copy of the decorations of the past, explaining, on the contrary, the intrinsic reasons that “made an ornament beautiful because it was appropriate”.
This last adjective, appropriate, refers directly to another theme linked to ornament, that of decorum, a concept that in rhetoric determines the adequacy of a subject to a narrative register. In architecture, by extension, decorum is the correspondence between a type of building and a style. In Western culture, in short, ornament and decoration have often had to do with a moral meaning, where the pertinence and appropriateness of decorating collide with the ephemeral, that is, aesthetics based on superfluous and worldly pleasantness.
The most famous blow on the question is certainly represented by the essay Ornament and crime by Adolf Loos. Written in 1908, this text, better known for its highly effective title than for its content, is a condemnation without recourse to the ornamental fashions of the time, directly connected with a discernible moral malpractice, according to the author, only in undeveloped civilizations.
We can consider the Austrian architect’s essay as the manifesto of a rationalist vision of liberation from superfluous ornament. From here on, for decades, the purity of the joints will not be hidden by any repairing ornament (often the decoration serves to cover up inaccuracies); the truth of the material will speak without resorting to coatings; the structure of the objects and architecture will be clear and proudly declared.
We will have to wait for the post-modern era to witness the liberation of the functionalist world without decoration from purism (Puritan). Although the path of ornament has always been practiced, in fact, from the point of view of criticism and theoretical literature it will only be with the revisionism of the Modern Movement implemented in the second post-war period that the psychological, anthropological and historical reasons of the right to decoration.
Thanks to authors such as Ettore Sottsass and the Radical groups of the 1960s, the surface becomes the backdrop for a riot of shapes, patterns and colors that often modify the structure itself, sometimes even ‘betraying’ and distorting it. With the advent of new plastic materials it is in fact possible to create surfaces that admittedly imitate natural raw materials, in total and shameless design artifice.
Laminates and shapes, which feature deeply unnatural colors such as fluorescent ones, are combined with optical patterns and faux wood surfaces, freeing the shape from the diktats of modernist asceticism towards an ironic and amused trompe l’oeil effect. Between the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, the bold combinations of Memphis will create new visual codes, together with the viral decoration of Mendini's pointillism in the Proust Armchair, which re-covers the ‘banal’ object and the power of the surface as transformation tool.
Soon the decoration will also become more physical, three-dimensional, material. If Shiro Kuramata in 1988 had already translated with his Miss Blanche the classic floral tapestry in synthetic roses drowned directly in acrylic resin, it will be with the 90s and 2000s that a new wave of décor will overwhelm the world of design with projects in which ornament and structure will often coincide. No longer as conflicting parties, but as co-stars of the same scene. And it is no coincidence that many of these tests will come from Italy and Holland, countries historically committed to a conceptual design of proximity to the world of contemporary art.
Hella Jongerius will therefore propose a table where the embroidery knows no continuity between tablecloth and plate and a bathroom where the coverings take on a functional decoration with anti-slip fake drops of water. But it will also be the moment of Marcel Wanders who will make structural the ‘useless’ decorations par excellence – the patterns of Bone China and the laces of the Dutch tradition – with furnishings and objects made magical by new technologies and innovative materials.
In Italy, the masters of a new generation will prove this, for example with Paolo Ulian, who designs tiles like notebook pages where the writings of public toilets can find an order. Or, more recently, with Andrea Anastasio who in the Filo lamp for Foscarini carries the ornament of Murano pearls in the object itself, as a fundamental component. Obviously, the minimal way of decorative subtraction still remains a creed for many designers today.
In short, detractors or supporters of ornament, yes, but as long as the clash is supported by a thought that always makes the act of decorating, or its denial, anything but superfluous.