Ornament: a space between

Review of The Production of Ornament: Reassessing the Decorative in History and Practice, a 2-day conference hosted by Lara Eggleton and Richard Checketts at the University of Leeds, 21-22 March 2014

Last month my colleague Richard Checketts and I organised a conference in Leeds based loosely on our shared interest in how ornament might be ‘productive of its objects and sites’. Our call for papers attracted a large number of proposals from which we selected (no easy task) a diverse but complimentary selection of papers (see full programme here). These in turn prompted an equally rich series of discussions, which opened out beyond the limitations of period style or formal classification. By the close of the second day I was thoroughly convinced that not only is there a need to challenge pejorative associations with ornamentation (e.g. decadence, superfluity, corruption, deceit, etc.), but also for a more careful consideration of its multiple registers of meaning within histories and historiographies of art, design and architecture. How does the failure of terms such as ‘ornament’ and ‘decoration’ point to a liminal or even volatile intersection between form and function, one that creates a space in which to discuss material, context and process of making and consuming within networks of production?

'The Wayland scene' from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

‘The Wayland scene’ from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

Catherine Karkov started off the first day with her paper, ‘Entanglement, Enchantment, Stone: The materiality of ornament in tenth-century Leeds’, which explored the meaning of the interlace patterns found on the stone carvings of an Anglo-Saxon cross currently residing in Leeds Minster. The original function of such crosses relates to wider social practices of story telling and community cohesion at a time when religious and political identities were in rapid flux. Explaining that the Old English word for knotting or binding, ‘cnotta’, can also mean to ensnare, entrap or enchant, Karkov discussed the interlace in relation to the secular and sacred iconography found on the four faces of the cross. While the partial legibility of the heavily restored pictorial components deny a comprehensive analysis, Karkov’s focus on the function of intertwining lines and plaits as a form of social binding was compelling. Drawing the attention of the viewer through and between narrative scenes and contemplative abstractions, the ornament of the cross may have been designed to bring together apposite systems of Christian and pagan belief.

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and 'arabesque' pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and ‘arabesque’ pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550, V&A

Soersha Dyon took us on a materially grounded journey through the Arabesque from its Islamic origins to its subsequent emergence via adaptation in Europe, predominantly through the portable objects produced in sixteenth-century Venice. In questioning to what extent these objects and their patterning were actually perceived by contemporary makers and consumers as ‘exotic’ (versus German wares, for example, which were considered at least equally unfamiliar), Dyon exposed the construction of our own historical perspective. If the arabesque was viewed by Venetian artisans and merchants as a domestic element, why do art historians continue to trace it back to ‘non-Western’ origins? Correspondingly, descriptive terms such as ‘damascene’ might refer to material, process and surface effect, rather than to an Oriental style as such. Primary sources can thus give important insight into how process and technique were concomitant with the development of pattern and motif, and how the development of style was subject to wider networks of production and trade.

Carol Bier continued this discussion of materials with a fascinating paper on the impact of mathematics on the development of architecture in Seljuk and pre-Mongol Iran. Underlining the etymological link between the Persian word for geometry (handasa) and the Arabic for engineer (mohandes), and returning to commentaries found in Arabic translations of Greek mathematical texts, Bier made a convincing case for seeing both number studies and theology as a fundamental part of Islamic architectural design and decoration in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Building plans, features and facades can similarly be aligned with innovations in engineering, logic and other forms of ‘number puzzling’ – products of a competitive court enterprise that turned complex mathematical formulae into powerful and evocative statements of erudition and progress.

The fourth speaker of the day, Steven Lauritano, unpacked the Überbleibsel (German for ‘remnant’), as a categorical holding place between the ruin and the fragment, a word that suggests a certain ‘staying power’ or lasting significance. In his early nineteenth-century descriptions of buildings that incorporated antique elements, architect-designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel utilised the term to denote the resonance of certain objects which held the attention and possessed a certain aura. Parallels with Walter Benjamin’s ‘loss of bloom’, the Überbleibsel problematizes a gestalt-oriented view of the ruin. Whilst the remnant may also be understood in terms of waste and decay – a leftover of history – it can also be given new life through its cycles of reception and appropriation. Precisely how a remnant is to be distinguished from a fragment, and their tenuous relationship to a perceived whole (the building it once was), tests the boundaries of the ornamental and the structural as predetermined categories.

The first of two speakers dealing with the production of cast iron, Jason Nguyen showed the ‘kit of parts’ that characterised architectural projects in seventeenth-century Paris. The division of labour that resulted from competing interests and financial speculation was such that the classically derived banisters and railings of the period came to reflect something of the legal and economic processes and interactions that both enabled and restricted their production. Nguyen demonstrated how the established relations between architects and wood and masonry workshops were upended with the emergence of ironworkers, the ‘obedient’ qualities of their materials requiring a new set of rules and subsequent hierarchies. As iron manufacturing entered into artisanal and patron networks, the value of labour and limits of autonomy were destabilised.

Viollet-le-Duc, 'Warwick armor', c. 1870

Viollet-le-Duc, ‘Warwick armor’, c. 1870

Our first keynote speaker Alina Payne introduced the body as a dominant feature of nineteenth and twentieth-century writings on ornament. Linking nineteenth-century thinkers such as Ernst Kapp and his theory of armour as an extension of the machine (a natural response to the machine replacing manual labour) to Viollet-le-Duc’s obsession with joinery, Gottfried Semper’s tectonic cladding, and Wolfflin’s psychology of architecture, Payne identified the body as a template or starting point for ornamental production within industrial architecture. In its ability to convey a sense of energy – an interior force pushing outwards – ornament can be likened to parts and dynamics of the body, something Le Corbusier would return to in the early twentieth century in his ‘machine for living’. Modernist ornament can thus be seen as growing organically and self-consciously from the mechanisms of the body, even in their ability to ‘swell, expand and contract’. To account for this shifting discourse surrounding ornament, Payne argues that ornament should be understood as a highly versatile and scaleless element, haptic in nature – the ‘nerve endings’ of architecture.

Day two commenced with a paper that explored empathy from an entirely different perspective. Our second keynote, Susanne Küchler, brought with her a wealth of anthropological knowledge, exploring inter-subjectivity in the maritime societies of the South Pacific as the basis for understanding ornamental production. Connecting the ‘logic of assemblage’ with patterning on bodies and objects, Küchler linked ornamental production to performance, repetition, imagination, and social interaction. Communities that share an unmediated experience of the everyday (unimaginable to citizens of post-industrial societies) produce ornament as an extension of their social worlds, imbedding understandings of spirituality and interpersonal links through making. The charting of these systems through acts of material production – whether collective stitching, assemblage or choreography – can be read as sets of societal inscriptions, yet another form of knotting or joining that becomes emblematic of societal bonds (indeed, the carful arrangement of three-dimensional objects used as a kind of legal contract can also be viewed as a form of heraldry). Evoking Barbara Maria Stafford’s ‘echo objects’, Küchler proposed that quilts and transactional objects produced by indigenous societies might be read as compressions of space and time, and as an index of behaviours and the ordering of human consciousness. Moreover, she provocatively suggests that such objects have the potential to communicate across cultural borders through their phenomenological and empathetic dimensions.

Elizabeth Athens followed with an equally rich paper that probed the intermediary space between ornament and natural history. Comparing William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753) with Carl Linnaeus’ botanical text Species Plantarum, published the same year, Athens explored the ‘reanimating of ornament in the service of natural history’ found in Hogarth’s elaborate inventory-style illustrations. Revealing the primary role of ornament in the development of both artistic and natural taxonomies, she explored recurring eighteenth-century debates around the ‘true outlines’ of nature versus the stylisations or abstractions that threatened to corrupt its ‘pure’ essence. Tracing the visual relationships between Hogarth’s natural and artificial objects, Athens considered the subversive and at times monstrous power of ornament to convey the dynamic interrelationships between the living and inanimate, between imagined and material worlds.

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

Continuing the themes of science and monstrosity, Frances Connelly treated us to a deeply engaging paper on the ‘boundary creature’ of the grotesque. Considered by Giambattista Vico in his 1725 New Science as the ‘original language’, grotesque ornament could bring together disparate elements and communicate complex, poetic ideas through its combinatory effects. In the intermixing of humans and beasts, and the natural with the unnatural, the grotesque has the power to debase, unsettle and torment, producing excess meaning that functions on multiple, metaphoric levels. At once primitive (essential) and highly articulate, the grotesque was a indication of of a society’s ability to reconcile disparate elements. Extending her historical scope to include an analysis of Yinka Shonabare’s recent installations, Connelly unearthed the terrifyingly productive force of ornament in contemporary art, both in its refusal to fit within established categories and its ‘insistence on speaking’.

Men's urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Men’s urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Paul Dobraszczyk took us from the grotesque to the obscene in the world of Victorian public toilets (not to be confused with Loos), in a fascinating paper that demonstrated the concealing power of ornament. The decorated cast iron structures that populated the streets of nineteenth-century Britain were explored as semi-private domains that were designed to be both chaste and unobtrusive. In the attempt to hide or disguise their ‘true’ function, manufacturers such as Walter McFarlane and Co. borrowed from Owen Jones’ Alambresque to produce Oriental patterns and mashrabiya-like screens as a way to defer or mask associations with obscenity and dangers associated with these enclosures. Dobraszczyk pointed out that the use of vegetal ornament and the placement of the urinals in green spaces was a further measure of this naturalisation or glamorisation process. The frivolity and humour of the Victorian toilet reveals both conservatism and playful reflexivity, its ornament mediating between the realms of public and private, and the exotic and the banal.

Sabrina Rahman gave a lively penultimate paper on the vernacular folk style produced in early twentieth-century Austria, unpacking the nuanced eclecticism of a surprisingly understudied period. The designs of Josef Frank and other members of the Austrian Werkbund display a unique blend of regional motifs and a range of influences from across the Hapsburg Empire that is simultaneously local and transnational in its composite vocabulary. Yet while these patterns appear minimal and streamlined, almost simple in their sharp primary palettes, they are also rendered indiscernible through their fusion of global styles – from Eastern European to Isnik – what Rahman identifies as a form of ‘diachronic modernity’. Touching for the third time on the universalism of Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, the polylingual Werkbund aesthetic appears to address everyone and no one simultaneously. In speaking, its multiple voices seem to cancel each other out.


Josef Frank, ‘Mirakel’, ca. 1830.

Mark Crinson brought us further into the twentieth century with a focused exploration of New Brutalist wallpaper (what might at first glance appear to be an oxymoron). Asking us to look up, quite literally, from our notes, Crinson shed light on a little-known ceiling installation of an Eduardo Paolozzi wallpaper design. Its immersive surface upsets the typology of interior spaces both through the compositional logic of its pattern and the repositioning of the viewer’s gaze. Its overall surface remains an undifferentiated void while its details (including the insertions of paisley and other recognisable motifs) betray irregularities born of the creative process. Drawing parallels with scientific diagrams and airport landing strips, Crinson discussed the work in relation to technologies of vision and movement through space. Placed above our heads, the wallpaper was possibly meant to operate as what Anton Ehrenzweig called a ‘gestalt-free zone’, a product of the unconscious or that transformed the room into a kind of technical support for the inscription of Paolozzi’s mental acrobatics.

The themes that emerged across the two days were numerous; my own opening thoughts on the chimeric qualities of ornament coming full circle after a journey through through the hybrid and the interstitial; the monstrous, grotesque, the obscene; the contemplative and psychological. The human figure loomed large (along with biology more generally), whether through the design and production of ornament or its theorisation and channels of reception. The recurrence of particular motifs (interlace, paisley, arabesque, polygons, vegetal), materials (stone, wood, iron, textile, ceramic), and processes (engineering, performance, installation, reproduction, translation) demonstrated the breadth and depth of meaning produced through substance, site and context. Ornamental production also emerged as a generative and concretising force throughout history, offering ways to think about societal and cross-cultural relations, as well as a shared human tendency that binds us to these histories and contexts. What became increasingly clear is that there is a need within the discipline (particularly in Art/Architectural History) to redefine the insufficient and fraught category of ornament, and rethink its contingent or incidental relationship to art and architectural objects.

My sincere thanks goes out to all who participated in the Production of Ornament. Please feel free to add your thoughts or continue the conversation below.

Download full conference programme here: The Production of Ornament


  1. editorarthistoriography · April 21, 2014

    Reblogged this on Journal of Art Historiography.


  2. Pingback: Art. What’s the Use? | folly matters

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