Design and ornament

There’s been a ton of debate about ornament and whether or not it belongs on a good design. Granted there have been periods when builders almost took leave of their senses and indulged in colossal expressions of bling. In the late 19th century, newly rich Americans clamored for furniture like they saw on their “grand tours” of Europe. One result was a slew of heavily carved German Black forest hunting lodge inpired pieces. Note the walnut dog head bursting through the panel on this cabinet door. Somehow I can imagine this resulting in a tramatized grandchild and weeks spent sleeping on the couch until she stopped waking up with screaming nightmares. Actually this is mild compared to some of the heavily carved hunting scenes complete with stacks of killed game above the cabinet. Sort of a furniture version of driving home with a dead deer strapped across the hood of your car. I’m not trying to make a judgement about hunting, though I will venture to say that just because we can carve something doesn’t mean we should. I’m using this bombastic example to touch on how we approach ornament and decoration on a form. At the other end of the spectrum it’s easy to find furniture designed completely devoid of ornament, even shunning wood grain. Before I go where angels fear to tread, I’d like to make a few points about ornament. First it might help to make a distinction between ornament and decoration. From a traditional viewpoint, they are distinctly different and give some insight in how ornament is best approached.

 Decoration can be a carved sculpture or a painting. In architecture it often shows up as a large mural or a statue. The key is that it frequently is a focal point. Often the building or grounds are designed to help us focus on some outstanding expression of art.

Acanthus leaf carving by Dan Reahard

Ornament can be carving, inlay, marquetry, painting, or gilding. It differs from decoration in that it is intended not as a focal point but instead to emphasize the underlying form. Note how this acanthus leaf carving emphasizes the graceful cabriole leg. Stringing and inlay can be used to great effect emphasizing a tapered table leg. Ornament is also very effective at emphasizing smaller sub elements. Think how a thin band of  stringing running around the perimeter of drawer front emphasizes the panel.

The traditional view on both ornament and decoration is they are elements that are not merely “added on” to an existing form. Rather, they complete a design and bring it to a fullness and richness it could not achieve apart from it. With this in mind I suggest you take a new look at ornament. Take a closer look at masterful work and note how the ornament emphasized the form.

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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3 Responses to Design and ornament

  1. Jeremy Kriewaldt says:

    In The Village Carpenter, Walter Rose puts a similar thought:
    “No amount of added ornament or excellence of finish can make a badly designed structure look well. Everyone can remember examples where much skill and labour has been expended on work designed on wrong lines. The result is always that the eye turned away from it dissatisfied. But good design will give pleasure to the beholder even when the finish is not perfect… [A]daptation to place and purpose is the underlying principle of all good design… I learnt that choice classic designs had been well thought out and established centuries before my birth. It was for me to study them, to revel in their line and proportion until the spirit became my own and controlled my perception. This is but part of the training of the well-conducted carpenter’s shop, a part only of the training at the workmen’s bench.”

  2. Tico Vogt says:

    Do you remember an amazing bowl on the back of Finewoodworking Magazine that featured an inlaid and turned bowl by Michael Korhun? I got to know this Ukaranian master because he lived in my area and showed his sculptures and carvings in local shows. A couple of times I dropped off at his house some burls I found in the woods. When he invited me into his house I got a real experience. It’s safe to say that every possible edge and most surfaces in general, had chip carving. You name it, book cases, edges of counters, table edges. There wasn’t a plain surface to be found. Coming from an appreciation of Shaker furniture, this environment was actually claustrophobic for me. The “decoration” element felt beyond the pale.
    I found it hard to appreciate the wonderful examples of his bowls and sculptures that were around because the business of the carved facets everywhere made me feel uncomfortable. However, this is a cultural reaction, and I recognize there is storytelling going on with those chip carving motifs.

    That moment was important for me, to recognize the polar opposite plain/ornate attitudes toward wood surface treatment, and to consider why I like what I like.

  3. walkerg says:


    I often have a similar reaction to a design with an over abundance of ornament. I agree part of my reaction is cultural but I also get the sense that I’m looking at a briar patch. That being said, I find ornament if applied with some thought can really compliment a design. One point of reference to keep in mind. Even on examples of ornament applied to some incredible buildings like Gunston Hall (VA), The Brown house in (RI), when compared to the house as a whole the ornament actually is a small part. Possibly the scale of furniture makes it much easier to overpower it.

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