Wabi-sabi, Jeremy Scott for Adidas, and ornament.

A few weeks ago in my history of  graphic design class, my teacher was sharing the japanese concept of “wabi-sabi”. Wabi-sabi as a concept used in design, seems to be an opposite aesthetic from modernism. While modernism tended towards clean, symmetrical, fluid and smooth design, wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection, irregularity, asymmetry, and roughness.

Which then reminded me of Adolf Loos’ rant against ornament being a waste of labor, resources, time and money. Loos is someone who would prefer to buy objects devoid of detailing and decoration and would also prefer to pay more money for something lacking ornamentation.

Loos says “The evolution of culture is the is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.”

I stumbled upon fashion designer Jeremy’s Scott’s sneaker collaborations with Adidas while browsing the web. His designs are the opposite of Loos’ argument. Devoted sneakerhead fans currently pay specifcally MORE for an ornament of a stuffed animal attached to their sneakers, rather than less, for an unadorned shoe, plain Adidas shoe. “Form follows function” is often quoted as a mantra for good design, but there is really no “function” that enables a sneaker to improve its performance by “sticking a bear on it”. But the whole point of this particular shoe, is the ornament.Image Continue reading

A visual companion to “The Decriminalization of Ornament”

In Alice Twemlow’s essay, The Decriminalization of Ornament, there are several references to designers, galleries, etc., that I was not familiar with. Here’s a handy all-in-one visual companion with links to go along with that essay.

From top left to bottom right

1) Tord Boontje garland light: http://tordboontje.com/

2) Room in the Volkswagon sponsored Project Fox hotel and a video of the hotel’s launch

designers chosen by Die Gestalten

3) Exposif Wallpaper  curated by the Maxalot gallery in Barcelona

4)  Geneviève Gauckler

5) Laurent Fétis

6) a page from a book designed by W.A. Dwiggins

7)a page from Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (1856)

8) Goudy typeface by Frederic Goudy

9) Book cover design by Enid MarxEnglish Popular Art

10) textile design by Hella Jongerius

A heads up on the next few posts…

I’m going to share some images of designers mentioned in Alice Twemlow’s essay, The Decriminalization of Ornament, originally published in 2005 in Eye Magazine, which I will eventually tackle after the eye candy posts.

It just gives a good visual background of the designers she mentions who use ornament in their work and the visual manifestions of contemporary ornamentation.

The “Greatest Hits” of Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime”

Pioneering Austro-Hungarian modernist architect, Adolf Loos, published his influential essay Ornament and Crime in 1908, basically railing against all objects possessing ornamentation. Here’s a pdf of it you can read – thanks to George Washington University.

I found this essay to be a fascinating read on a couple levels – design-wise and digesting this over 100 year old essay from a contemporary perspective. Loos most definitely considers himself to be a “modern” man and the people in his society favoring ornamentation he considers to be NOT. I have to admit, as culturally insensitive as this essay is, (definitely reflecting the eurocentric, colonialist worldview at the time), in his championing of modernism, he was ahead of his time in his vision of design. Modernism & neo-modernism presence is still alive and kickin’ in the current culture.

Loos views he elimination of ornament is a sign of progress and is the “style” of  the modern man. Superfluous ornamentation is considered to be a waste of money, time and labor spent on creating on object, when a plain one would do. He felt that simpler design, with less ornamentation (or no ornamentation) would be able to withstand time better than ornamented objects, which fell out of style quickly.

He starts the essay out by comparing the actions of an indigenous Papuan person to a Viennese person of his time: a Papuan can tattoo himself and tattoo “…everything he can lay hands on”,  “The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate”. He then compares the Papuan’s urge to tattoo to a child’s urge to naturally scribble on the wall. While this is permissible for the Papuan and child, this is not acceptable for the modern man. “Modern Man” in Loos’ view meaning himself, and others who adhere to the unadorned modernist tastes and perspective. Anyone subscribing to ornamentation is less enlightened, primitive and perhaps child-like. (Ironically, Loos’ perspective of the modern man is sort of horrifyingly “unmodern” and offensive in our current culture).

Here are some “Best Ofs” from his essay:

“I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.Continue reading

The Origins of Thinking about Ornamentation

Initially, I was intrigued by the concept of “ornament” and “ornamentation” in graphic design while reading Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller’s Graphic Style – From Victorian to New CenturyWhile reading about the Arts and Crafts movement in England (the mid 1800s-early 1900s) and the Bauhaus school in Germany (1919-1933), it was interesting to note that they both held similar ideals and were reform movements, but with different visual outcomes. Both schools (perhaps initially for Bauhaus) strived to remove the boundaries between craftsmanship and art. The Arts and Crafts movement in England was a reaction against the negative, poorly made goods produced in the industrialization era. This movement set to bring attention to creating beautiful, handcrafted functional works, often decorated with organic flourishes. Stylistically, it is less ornate and fussy compared to the typical Victorian aesthetic of the time, but much more embellished in appearance compared to Bauhaus. On the other hand, Bauhaus was initially modeled after William Morris’ art and craft workshops, fusing together fine arts and crafts. While initially not having a uniform style, Bauhaus’ output leaned more in a stark, unadorned and geometric direction, which laid a major foundation for the modern movement. The initial intent of both movements may have been similar, but the visual outcomes seem completely contrary.

A few examples of works from the Arts and Crafts movement in England:

The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, printed by William Morris (1890s)


Strawberry Thief Textile design by William Morris, 1883

Poster for Bauhaus Exhibition by Joost Schmidt, 1923

Herbert Bayer’s Universal alphabet, 1925