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Ornament and the Designer

Recently I was lucky enough to listen to Marian Bantjes speak about her new book I Wonder and her obsession with ornament. I have followed her work for sometime now and its rise from curiosity to mainstream influence. Ornament is a topic not often discussed in design and for most of the 20th century was packed away as modernism’s influences became a mantra for graphic design. Simplicity, clarity and the ability to distil communication down to its absolute essence were considered to be fundamental qualities that a graphic designer needed to succeed. Ornament was made to suggest a mere decoration, an unnecessary embellishment that wasted precious resources. But a growing number of designers and illustrators are trying to break away from these systems and Bantjes’ work has become an important part of this discussion.

Marian Bantjes at St. Brides Library, London October 2010

Detail of Bantjes’ poster on sustainability. (C) Marian Bantjes

What makes this discussion important though, is that this movement has been brought about by a renewed interest in the process of producing a piece of work, rather than a nostalgic mash-up of vintage visuals. To highlight this, Bantjes spoke extensively about her process and how important it is to the development of her work. Part of the growing popularity of this type of work is a desire to break away from the mechanised, mass-produced feel that computers seem to have on the design process. A slavish attitude to using technology means that designers are more concerned about the finished result rather than the steps they took to arrive there. The ability to easily replicate a particular visual style means that although designers have more control over the process they are often disconnected from it. Ornamental work by its very nature demands a level of involvement that is almost obsessive. It is different in that it can draw the viewer in, without giving up its secret that easily, making the work more engaging and ultimately, more rewarding. I use the word obsessive because the beauty of many of these pieces lies in the details. It should also be said that ornament need not be mere decoration inserted as an afterthought for visual effect. By looking at ornament from the perspective of process it can more easily break free of this tradition and cliché. It may be worthwhile looking at contemporary artists and designers such as eBoy and Tord Boontje are re-imagining what ornament means by giving it a new language and grammar; a refreshing alternative to minimalist functionality.

eBoy (left), Tord Boontje (right)

So what of the sources of inspiration for designers working with ornament. Bantjes mentioned early Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist art as her sources of inspiration. It would be interesting to see what designers on the sub-continent might evolve using local perspectives on ornament.

A word of caution though because there is a fine line between good taste and extravagant waste. Bollywood’s influence on popular culture in the country is huge, with kitsch being the dominant aesthetic. Unfortunately, most of it is a lazy cut and paste excuse which is mass-produced to feed an audience that should know better. I have often been asked or have talked with designers about why there isn’t more ‘Indian looking’ graphic design. Part of it of course has to do with the fact there is no one single aesthetic to serve as a wellspring. But if ornament, which almost every Indian understands almost subconsciously is allowed to act as the base on to which a new language and grammar can be formed, then designers might just be able to spark something interesting. Just a thought for now though, as these are still early days for the craft, but ornament can no longer be ignored as old-fashioned and obsolete.

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