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.
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