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Decorating And Ornament

( Originally Published 1922 )

ORNAMENT is that which adorns and embellishes. It gives variety and richness to the ornamented surfaces, and is, no less than plainness, essential to beauty in the decoration of houses. Without ornament a room would inevitably be monotonous and uninteresting. It must, however, be good ornament, and there must not be too much of it.

Ornament exists to enrich and beautify constructional forms, and it is good ornament only when it appears to be not a fortuitous and unrelated addition to those forms, but an integral, organic part of them, as much a matter of growth as the markings of a butterfly or the plumage of a bird. In an accurate sense ornament can have no independent existence. It is always a decoration or embellishment, and it is significant only in association with some useful or constructional form that it is fitted to adorn. The ornament employed in the design of the chair shown in Figure Io is good ornament because it embellishes and emphasizes artistically the constructional lines of the back and legs. When on the contrary ornament, instead of being content to adorn, seeks to substitute itself for structural forms, as in the Barocco chair shown in Figure 49, it becomes bad ornament and infinitely worse than none at all.

All ornament, whatever its character, can be traced to an origin in either natural or geometrical forms. The earliest ornament was almost wholly geometrical, and consisted chiefly in simple arrangements of straight, curved and zigzag lines, or rhythmically repeated circles, scrolls, squares and triangles. With advancing culture and increasing technical skill primitive man learned to look to nature for his ornament. Animal and plant forms were drawn from the natural world, and more and more employed in the embellishment of arms, vessels and wall surfaces.

Natural forms employed as the basis of ornamental design may be used by the designer in either of two ways. When such a form is accurately copied, so that both its details and its peculiar order of growth or development are imitated, the ornament is said to be naturalistic. When the ornament simply reproduces the typical form of the natural object, changing its details and coloring and disregarding its natural order of growth, it is said to be conventional. The wall papers pictured in Plate XIV show ornament drawn from nature, in varying degrees of conventionalization. The Greek honeysuckle or anthemion is purely conventional ornament. In the great ornamental styles the details have for the most part been taken from nature, but treated conventionally. There may be a fairly close imitation of natural forms in the parts of an ornamental design, but never of the natural order of growth; for it is in the nature of good ornament to fit the structural form of the object it adorns, and this is possible only when the natural order of growth is disregarded.

However, the person of uncultivated taste has a marked predilection for the mere imitation of natural forms, and in all periods of poor taste naturalistic ornament is very common. Forty years ago, in what might be called the iron stag age of American home-making, we were graining wood and wall paper to imitate marble, hanging hair wreaths and wax flowers, glass-encased, on our walls, and weaving the images of cats and dogs, to say nothing of roses and holly-hocks, into our rugs. In England and Germany things were as bad or worse; and even in France naturalistic roses were woven into the Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets of the old régime, while it remained for a Frenchman of a later date to design a porte-cure-dents, or toothpick holder, carved or cast in the form of a turkey gobbler, with the toothpicks tastefully disposed fan-wise to form the tail. To-day naturalistic ornament is largely confined to floor coverings, wall papers, drapery stuffs and hand-painted china, and while a lot of it is to be seen in the shops, and more of it in the homes of unsophisticated folk, no one is compelled to buy it; for so notable has been the progress of American manufacturers during the past ten or fifteen years that it is possible to find properly conventionalized ornament in any field, and at any price.

The fondness for naturalistic ornament is no doubt due primarily to the instinct of imitation, which in-clines us to like what we have seen before and can recognize without difficulty. That this fondness is so persistent is due to our failure to distinguish between the functions of pictorial and decorative art. It is the proper function of a picture to set forth an appearance of nature, whereas it is the sole function of ornament to adorn useful forms, and to make them as agreeable as possible to the eye. To do this ornament must, as we have seen, become an integral part of these forms, adapted to their structural peculiarities, and without any independent character of its own. Thus the rose in a carpet, wall paper or drapery stuff is not in any proper sense a picture of a natural rose. It is simply a means of adorning or embellishing a textile surface, and as such it shares in the nature of the textile and becomes a part of it. In the degree that the rose is designed to copy nature accurately, and to reveal a separate existence apart from the textile, it ceases to be good ornament and becomes a poor picture, and is just as objectionable as any other poor picture would be if it were repeated every few inches.

Ornamental forms are used not only for their purely esthetic value as an ornament or enrichment of structural forms, but also, in many schools of ornament, as symbols, or signs employed to represent and suggest an idea. Thus the trefoil was used in Gothic art not only to embellish structure, but also as the symbol of the Trinity, as the lotus was used in ancient Egypt and throughout the East as the symbol of fecundity and ever-renewing life. Historic ornament is some-times symbolic, like that of Egypt; sometimes esthetic, like that of Greece; sometimes both esthetic and symbolic, like that of Persia. Primitive art is largely symbolic, while as man advances in intelligence and culture he has less need for a symbolism as such, and is more and more concerned with the esthetic value of all ornamental forms. Thus even when through the influence of religious ideas ornament retains a markedly symbolic character it is more and more expressed in modes based upon symmetry of form and harmony of color, and thus designed to appeal to the sense of the beautiful as well as to the under-standing.

Present-day secular ornament is purely esthetic. It employs symbolic forms without reference to their meaning, and only in so far as they are intrinsically pleasing. Yet the pleasure of the decorator in his work, and the pleasure of each of us in his home, is greatly enhanced by a knowledge of symbolic ornament. It is a thread that unites us with the life of the past, a light that reveals a little of the immense and shadowy reaches of human thought and aspiration. Any one can see the beauty of ornament in the swastika or gamadion fret as used to embellish the apron of an eighteenth-century English table. The initiate alone sees twenty-five centuries beyond England to Greece, and twenty-five—fifty—perhaps a hundred centuries beyond Greece to the immemorial East; for the swastika recreates in his imagination that dim time when man tried with a few crude marks to express the daily wonder of the sun's forward course across the heavens, as the lotus and the tree forms of Oriental rugs reveal to him primitive man's awed consciousness of the mysterious generative forces of nature, and half lift the veil from ancient and all-but-forgotten faiths.

Ornamental art was old—probably thousands of years old—at the time of the cave-man. Its historical development can be traced backward in existing monuments to the middle kingdom of Egypt, while there is sound reason to believe that some of the ornamental forms found in modern rugs from Turkestan have persisted unchanged for more than six thousand years. While ornamental forms and symbols have for thou-sands of years been spread from one land to another, through commercial intercourse and by the tides of immigration and conquest, so that the whole subject of the rise and evolution of ornament is enormously complex, we can say that in the development of European civilization there have been nine great characteristic ornamental styles : in the ancient world, the Egyptian, the Greek and the Roman ; in the medieval world, the Byzantine, the Saracenic and the Gothic ; and in the modern world, the Renaissance, the Cinquecento and the Louis Quatorze. Several of these styles have had two or more strongly marked modes—as Doric and Alexandrine Greek, or Romanesque, Lombard and Norman Byzantine—while the sub-variants in different countries and among different peoples have been al-most innumerable.

The student will, of course, note that historic orna-ment and historic decoration are by no means the same thing. Many of the so-called period styles in decoration and furniture have been developed since the rise of the last great ornamental style, and have drawn their ornamental detail from whatever historic sources suited the designers. Thus the ornament of the Louis Seize and Empire styles in France, the Adam style in England, and the Biedermaier style in Germany is adapted from classical antiquity.

Successful practice in interior decoration does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of historic orna-ment, but it does require a very considerable and a very accurate knowledge of that subject. This knowledge the student of interior decoration who aims at anything approaching a mastery of his subject must acquire, even though its acquisition involve some drudgery. Moreover, a little knowledge of the evolution of ornamental art ought to be a part of the equipment of every cultivated person; for every ornamental form is a human document, and ornamental art is as much a revelation of the life and culture of a race or an epoch as is architecture or literature.

There is a wide literature of ornament, and the student will be helped both by such works as the analytical studies of Crane, Day, Wornum and Hamlin, and by the numerous manuals or cyclopedias of ornament, which contain innumerable examples of historic ornament. Of these manuals Meyer's Handbook of Ornament, Glazier's Manual of Historic Ornament and Speltz's Styles of Ornament are in black and white and easily accessible. The two great manuals in color are Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament and Racinet's L'orne-ment polychrome.

The three cardinal sins against good decoration in the choice and distribution of ornament are revealed by the use of ornament not properly related to and dependent upon structure, the use in the same composition of ornamental forms which seem to be incongruous—that is, incapable of having grown together; and the use of too much or too little ornament.

The decorator can escape the first sin, as he can escape so many other sins against good decoration, by the mere exercise of care and common sense. He can escape the second sin only through a sound study of ornament, which will enable him to avoid incongruities both in the character of ornament and in degrees of conventionalization, which is a matter no less important.

The distribution of ornament and the relation of ornamented to plain surfaces is a matter of very great importance in decoration, both in the treatment of the room regarded as a whole and in the design of individual units. The mind finds a room with too much ornament distracting and wearisome, and one with too little ornament tedious and dull. That is, it wants, here as everywhere, to be aware of the presence of unity in diversity. Beauty and comfort are possible only where there is neither too little nor too much. The student will sometimes find in books on interior decoration definite formulas for the distribution of ornament; as, for example, the statement that figured rugs demand plain walls and hangings, figured walls plain rugs and hangings, and figured hangings plain rugs and walls. Such formulas are of no value what-ever, since they may be, and in fact are continually disregarded with the happiest results.

Probably no formula can be adduced to cover the distribution of ornament more definite than the one which was included in the chapter on proportion. We know that we must have a judicious balance between plain and ornamented surfaces; but we know also that within the maximum and minimum limits imposed by this esthetic requirement we can in practice vary in a marked degree the relative emphasis placed upon plain or ornamented surfaces in the decoration of a given room. Relative emphasis upon plain as opposed to ornamented surfaces makes for fineness and delicacy of effect, while relative emphasis upon ornamented as opposed to plain surfaces makes for richness and breadth of effect. Over-emphasis upon plainness results in thin, poor and weak rooms. Over-emphasis upon ornament results in over-complexity and that confusion which is invariably fatal to beauty.

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