ornament tuesdays

tuesday evenings, 7:00-9:30,
24 and 31 July, and 14 and 21 August

organized by

John McVey     617 661 4276     jmcvey@tiac.net
John Kramer     617 524 3746     jkramer@gis.net

jump to

meeting 1 (24 july)
meeting 2 (31 july)
meeting 3 (14 august)
meeting 4 (21 august)

The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use.
Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime (1908)

This Gesamtkunstwerk does more than combine architecture, art and craft: it mingles subject and object -- “the individuality of the owner was expressed in every ornament, every form, every nail.” For the Art Nouveau designer this is perfection: “You are complete!” he tells the owner. But the owner is not so sure. Rather than a sanctuary from modern stress, his Art Nouveau interior is another expression of it: “The happy man suddenly felt deeply, deeply unhappy... He was precluded from all future living and striving, developing and desiring. He thought, this is what it means to learn to go about life with one's own corpse. Yes indeed. He is finished. He is complete!” For the Art Nouveau designer this completion reunites art and life: for Loos it is a catastrophic loss of the objective constraints required to define any “future living and striving, developing and desiring.” Far from a transcendence of death, this loss of finitude is a death-in-life, it is living “with one's own corpse”.
Hal Foster, “Hey, that's me”


We are uncomfortable with ornament, sometimes, and at others, uncomfortable with its absence. Less is more, we say, yet fill our lives with extras, with tokens of nuance, textures of living. The idea for a seminar on this topic came to both of us over a year ago, as the modernist, hygienic Twentieth Century slipped away, to reveal again what it had covered in Malevichian whitewash -- the Nineteenth Century and its concern with decoration. It's a concern that seems to wax and wane, again and again.

For Kramer, the idea of ornament seemed inviting by virtue of its taboo status.

I first made things with any seriousness under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, Sol Lewitt, Steve Reich, Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, and Yvonne Rainer -- artists who professed to reject the ornament present in the modernist grand expressive gesture. It is only recently that I have come to recognize the decor of anti-decor, and become interested in the conscious act of ornament, style and status. For one who relishes the beauty of the “found”, nothing is more intimidating than the purposeful seduction of store windows or wallpaper. So I'd like to give it a try.

Also, since I attribute evolutionary “adaptive significance” to all human and animal activities, I wonder how we are wired to modify our environment in pursuit of the enjoyment of living. And find nothing more moving than the act of making something that looks, works, feels better than it has to. And few things more off-putting than the excess of this same activity.

For McVey, meditations on ornament and decoration represented a midlife (maybe) reflection on asceticism and dimensions of life that he'd denied.

Prompting some of these thoughts were a number of experiences: being struck by the tragic poignancy of some fragments of wallpaper shown in a book about late 18th and early 19th century “papiertapeten” in Weimar; and my surprise at the unleashed energy shown by students to whom I assigned a wallpaper design project -- four panels, that could tile together endlessly. Decoration seems to be that part of design that we're loathe to admit, in our haste to be information architects or Artists. I wonder whether attention to detail is ornament enough. I wonder whether decoration is a natural signature of craft, and where to seek it (and craft) today.


As we envision it, the seminar depends on two components:

(1) a set of readings, grouped around themes, that we will discuss; and

(2) the interests, knowledge and desires that each of the participants brings to the seminar.

We ask that everyone bring some object to the first meeting, that somehow manifests or betokens an attitude about ornament/decoration that we would want to consider, weigh, explore.

During the two-week hiatus between the second and third meetings, participants will work on a project for presentation at the third meeting; that project could be research or it could be making, or it could combine both. It is expected that whatever it is would be revised and brought to some form of closure for the fourth meeting.

We'll discuss whether any documentation would be useful, perhaps for posting on the seminar's website or for distribution in some other way.

The readings tend to be of a “meta” or theoretical cast, meaning that they are not historical discussions of decorative styles or craft issues, for example. It is hoped that some/all of the participants projects will at least be grounded in the specific.

Participants include graphic and industrial designers and design educators, a weaver, a choreographer, a muralist and a painter.

provisional outline

meeting 1 (24 july)
first meeting at the home of John McVey, 47 Vassal Lane no 2, Cambridge
(corner of Vassal Lane and Walden/Reservoir)
non-permit parking available a block away, along Huron Ave.

survey of the large issues, and presentations by participants of an example of ornament/decoration, how it pertains to issues raised in the readings, and their relationship to it.

Hal Foster. “Hey, that's me” (review of Bruce Mau, Life Style), in London Review of Books, 5 April 2001
Adolf Loos. “Ornament and Crime” and “Ornament and Education”, in Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (1998)
Beatrice Warde. The Crystal Goblet, or, Printing Should be Invisible (1932)

meeting 2 (31 july)
at home of John Kramer and Daniel McCusker, 78 Tower Street, near Forest Hills MBTA Station.
Choose one from each of two pairs of readings:

Two accounts of the course of the discussion on decoration during the 19th and into the 20th century:
David Brett. On Decoration (1992). Introduction and Conclusion, and
Isabelle Frank. “The History of the Theory of Decorative Art” in Frank, ed., The Theory of Decorative Art (2000)

Frank introduces her useful anthology by discussing the course of theorizing about the decorative arts, beginning in the 18th century and waning in the early decades of the 20th century, with its demise of a consensus about the properties and even the existence of a “decorative art,” and the emergence in its stead of new, related, notions of material culture, folk art, craft, and contemporary design. Brett deveolops an “intellectual narrative” through his investigation of a “discourse of decoration,” and concludes with a meditation on an irreparable break in the continuity of decorative art. As the “consistent” discourse collapsed, different decorative styles coexisted or succeeded on down to the present day. A history of the decorative arts in the 19th century does not usefully reach into the 20th. Brett also usefully explores the foundations of the human desire for decoration, starting with perceptual and biological factors, which are themselves elaborated and codified by culture... through manufacture, symbolisation, cooperative relations of many kinds.

Two “biological” discussions of ornament/beauty:
Nancy Etcoff. Introduction (The Nature of Beauty). Chapter 1 (Beauty as Bait) and Conclusion, Survival of the Prettiest (1999) and
Michael Pollan. Introduction (The Human Bumblebee) and Chapter 2 (Desire: Sweetness/Plant: The Tulip) in The Botany of Desire (2001)

discussion of projects for two-week hiatus

meeting 3 (14 august)
presentations of projects.
discussion of readings (TBA)

meeting 4 (21 august)
return to some theorists, and/or
review of revisions of projects and directions selected/defined by participants

other (likely) readings

Dave Hickey (pending, but probably includes New York Times article on the show in Santa Fe that he is curating.)
Le Corbusier “The Decorative Art of Today”
Ernst Bloch, The Creation of Ornament, in Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays (1988)
Siegrid Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, in Krakauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (1995)
Georg Simmel, Adornment, in Frank (History)