Flights Of Fancy: The Art Of Ornamental Decoration

Flights Of Fancy: The Art Of Ornamental Decoration

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“Eye on Design” Archive from Mann Report (Article By Gail Green)


From the walls of Ancient Egypt to the hallowed halls of modern day ecclesiastical architecture, ornamental decoration, has embellished our living environments. Like the bas reliefs of 4,000 years ago, we have been compelled to adorn buildings and objects alike with ornamental decoration. Formed of stone, wood, plaster, clay or composite, these applied decorative motifs enhance the surfaces and edifices into which they are placed. Though not as grand as the buildings themselves, this decoration brought a sense of humanism to the place, an expression of the individual who painstakingly and meticulously created a stamp of his own genius.

“Surface modulation,” (another name for this type of relief) the historian John Summerson notes, reveals the zeitgeist of the period. From the 15th to 18th centuries, the use of ornamentation was prolific. Palladio, in particular, appreciated and designed motifs to enhance his architecture. The Renaissance, in general, saw a resurgence of innovation with regard to types of ornamental decoration. Here, Neo-Greek and Roman symbols were created to adorn every surface. Perhaps the most prevalent and fluid ornamental makers were those of the 18th century.

The Scottish architect Robert Adam did much to bring ornamental design into the modern era. Of Neoclassical style and spirit, Adam designed and implemented plaster and composition decoration to embellish both his buildings and furniture. An artist and genius of space, he married the aesthetics of classical simplicity with the ornateness of 18th century England. With the product, a musical symphony of ornament and design, form and function, Adam brought this art to new heights. Repetitive classical motifs such as lyres and urns abounded. Used on ceilings and walls, in niches and on furniture, these humanistic embellishments brought a whimsy and elegance to its surrounding architecture.

Adam’s influence in using applied ornament was pervasive. New methods of creating less expensive versions soon opened the doors for more diverse types of uses in the 19th Century. Lori Hertzan, master in the trade of architectural and decorative ornamentation, cites that “these motifs are additionally applied to more decorative surfaces such as picture frames.” In addition, “this decorative ornament is found decorating flat surfaces such as drapery cornices, chair rail moldings, door and window surrounds, mantelpieces, wainscot paneling, staircases and anywhere the homeowner wishes to enhance and delight their home.”

Indeed, ornamental decoration has found its footing within the modern idiom. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, architects have found such decorative work instrumental to their designs. And, though one tends to agree with Summerson’s theory that early modern architecture’s absence of such decoration says much about its pared-down minimalism, dictating function over form, ornamentation still fits comfortably within the modern sensibility.

A typical 18th century frieze reinterpreted through the use of modern motifs brings it into the 21″ century. Repetitive patterns mined from Deco fabrics and designs are molded into compositions as ceiling or frieze decoration. As Hertzan expresses,“Architectural ornamentation, when applied to a structure, be it residential or commercial, creates a dramatic impression.” So it is with a decorative motif she created to define and merge the windows of a living room together. By iterating the fabric motif, the composite design drew a relationship between the drapery wall and its surrounding fabrics. Delighting the senses, it surprises the eye, yet defines the space. In another application, she applied an Art Moderne style motif to the cove molding, adding interest and subtlety. And, for a ceiling she created, a circular Art Deco motif, is painted in nickel and cream-colored stains, adorning a flat unobtrusive foyer.

As far as the imagination can fly, these decorative elements soar. They add interest and spirit, charm and whimsy. The ornaments can be simple or complex, silver or gold plated, colored or monotone. Unusually elegant and understated, they are the attention to detail that count, adding character to the room or surface upon which they are placed.


*Note – Article adapted from print. Images reflect reduced quality.

Click here to view original print article.


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