Ornament and the Industrial

Throughout my time working as a designer, I’ve often been asked to design things that look more “industrial.” It’s a phrasing that’s often peeved me, partially because it strikes me as a euphemism masking gendered critique, but also largely because what I think is usually implied by “industrial”—evocative of “function over form” stems from a myth about machinery that makes less sense than ever with modern technology.

Where did the industrial aesthetic come from? First, before discussing the manifested lack of ornament, we should define ornament. My favorite definition comes from James Trilling’s book Ornament: A Modern Perspective. Trilling’s definition first scopes out decoration as “the most general term for the art we add to art,” and specifies ornament as “decoration in which the visual pleasure of form significantly outweighs the communicative value of content” (p. 23). Ornament encompasses the pattern, texture, details that adorn everything from objects to architecture in the world around us, and a key principle of it is joy.

Perhaps one of the most well-known early advocates for the removal of ornament is Adolf Loos, with his famous 1910 essay “Ornament and Crime.” Written in 1910 (right at the tail end of Art Nouveau), Loos makes two main arguments. First, he declares “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects” (original emphasis)(p. 20). He backs up this theory with a fundamentally racist logic flow, using Papuans as the example of an allegedly less-developed culture with assertions like “The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his paddles, in short everything he can lay his hands on. He is not a criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate” (p. 19).

Revisiting Loos’ text reminds me of the multiple times my professors called my heavily ornamented jewelry work “ethnic,” which really didn’t seem to mean anything besides not-white. This type of argument really highlights the correlation of more minimal aesthetics (or completely minimal, in the case of Loos), with the erasure of cultures in art and design discourse. “Industrial” is often asked for as a means of creating a neutral example, but designating it as “neutral” results in designating every other perspective as “other” in a way that is fundamentally problematic.  

The second core component of Loos’ argument against ornament is a waste of resources, citing how long ornament takes a woodcarver or turner or lacemaker to create and writing that though ornamented objects cost more to produce they are sold for less than their plain counterparts (p. 22). However, Loos’ essay was published before the advent of mass production, with Henry Ford’s assembly line kicking off in 1913.

Mass manufacturing dramatically increased the spread of the ornament-free aesthetic, with the perception that the shift stemmed from the machines themselves.  However, Peter Dormer as notes in The Culture of Craft, “We set up machine technology to achieve more efficiently that which we can nevertheless and with great effort achieve without machine technology. The standards of ‘perfection’ that are so often ascribed to the example of machine production were set first by human imagination and craft achievement” (p. 143). There are certainly limitations that can come from machinery (think the draft angle of an injection mold, or the maximum print bed size of a 3D printer), but it can be just as hard to set up a minimal form as a completely blinged-out one. So, though the work of manufacturing ornament could be reduced with such methods, the removal of ornament was seen as in keeping with the times, and it’s an invented notion that has been slow to leave us.

With digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, the possibilities of ornament become even more infinite, but I haven’t seen too much exploration there at an industrial scale. Topology optimization and lattices seem to be what’s considered progressive in the space, and those techniques and aesthetics really are cool, but they’re a very limited subset of the possible diversity. At a smaller scale, though, it’s been infinitely inspiring to see how artists and individuals are pushing the limits and trying all sorts of crazy things as more and more digital fabrication methods become more widely available. My inspiration for Styklet really came from a desire to take that smaller-scale possibility and subvert the many plain, mass-manufactured objects in my life. If we could influence the prevailing aesthetic, to encompass more of the variety the world has to offer, for me, that would be the dream…

Anyways. Since I started with a quote from Trilling I’ll end with one, too:

“We take it for granted not only that machines should be unadorned but that they should not be used to make ornament. The two principles are equally products of circumstance. Neither is self-evident or inevitable, and there is no logical connection between them” (Ornament: A Modern Perspective, p. 174).

Until next time,

Alex

 

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