During the early 20th century, the use of ornament in industrial design received hostile response from avant-garde designers who increasingly favored the clean, austere lines of modernism. Suppressed, but not completely eradicated by economic swings and personal taste, ornament quietly persevered until designers’ moods once again began to incorporate pattern into production.
A new exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building celebrates the re-emergence of ornament with Visual Delight: Ornament and Pattern in Modern and Contemporary Design (May 16 - September 2009). Organized by Diane Minnite, European Decorative Arts After 1700 Collections and Research Assistant, Visual Delight encompasses more than 30 works from the collection, starting with the late 1960s, when ornament began to re-enter into the critical discourse of the time.
“This exhibition highlights ornament’s comeback, showcasing works from the Museum’s modern and contemporary design collection,” said Minnite. “There are so many ways to incorporate ornament in design; from the flat, colorful surface patterning seen on so many of the pieces from the 1980s, to the more three-dimensional naturalistic designs of today, ornament and our reactions to it continue to evolve.”
The exhibition encompasses a wide range of mediums, featuring furniture, lamps, hanging screens, textiles and smaller decorative objects. Among the most arresting works is a series of eight enameled-steel panels by Philadelphia-based architect Robert Venturi. The panels in the exhibition are just a fraction of the decoration which once adorned the façade of the Best Products Showroom in Langhorne, PA. The use of large, bright flowers on the exterior of a building was revolutionary at the time, and represents one of the most iconic examples of Venturi’s concept of the “decorated shed.”
Other works are on a smaller scale, but equally of interest, such as “Antibodi Chaise” (2006) by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola. Urquiola’s lounge is covered with seductive red felt flowers, emphasizing its decorative rather than functional aspect. Other pieces equally highlight their ornamental character, such as the “Corallo Armchair” (2004) by Fernando and Humberto Campana, constructed of epoxy-coated steel, welded together to form a tangled mass of wires, or Joris Laarman’s “Heatwave” radiator (2003), its function virtually disguised by its beautiful scrolling shape.
Visual Delight also highlights the way technologies have influenced designers’ use of ornament. While laser cutting, injection molding and digital printing have made it possible to mass-produce intricate patterns and three-dimensional shapes, designers continue to incorporate handcrafting, as exemplified by Hella Jongerius’s “Layers Park Double” textile (2004) for American manufacturer, Maharam. Though the botanical designs are machine-embroidered on large industrial machines, the top layer of this textile is hand-cut to reveal the felt layer beneath.
“The intersection between hand-made and machine-made represents an interesting direction in contemporary design,” Minnite said. “Though many of these works are in large-scale production, designers are increasingly interested in engaging the end-user in influencing the look of the final product.”
Visual Delight highlights an ongoing interest in ornament and pattern that continues to evolve, exemplified by the large number of works from the 21st century included in the exhibition, such as Tord Boontje’s series of whimsical “chandeliers,” constructed of laser-cut flowers in Tyvek, a paper-like material, and brass.
For more information: Visual Delight: Ornament and Pattern in Modern and Contemporary Design