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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 3 (October-November 1949)

A plea for ornament

A plea for ornament

Every age evolves a style that is characteristic of it. We are living in an age that has a profound distrust of the ornamental. The slogan of fitness for purpose is a good weapon against the Victorian tendency to apply ornament as an afterthought, but does it necessarily mean that nothing modern can be good unless it has the appearance of a machine-shop product, or should it be understood as meaning that there is no beauty without fitness for purpose?

Looking at the products of our time one tends to see three distinct styles emerge—if “styles” is applicable. First there is Ye Olde Jacobean—electric chandeliers looking like candles but without the smell or the dripping wax. This must be admitted as a style, not only on account of its popularity but also because it is a symptom of our flight from the harassing bustle of modern living. Let me quote from a modern Continental catalogue of electrical fittings:

“The good old days. These four little words express so many wishes and memories; the wish to escape, were it only for a few minutes, from our feverish life and find a moment's rest in a romantic atmosphere of the past.”

The second style might be described as the “jazzy” or modernistic. It is perhaps the lowest aesthetic standard in what must be accepted as belonging to our age. The jazziest and most ornate cinema chandelier cannot be denied a full measure of twentieth century vitality, but its appeal is so violent as to become unbearable, unless one's senses get so blunted by it that they refuse to react.

The third characteristic modern style is 100% sober. The utmost indulgence by way of ornament is a mild flirtation with some elemental figures which have strayed out of a geometry book. But the more drab our workaday lives, the more kick do we need. There remains the same kind of difference as between a whisky when you feel like it, and a continuous state of dipsomania. A style that is bare, austere and completely sterilised feels stale, insipid and anæmic.

People want ornament for good human reasons. We have progressed straight and fast in utilitarian design, whereas ornament has gone to rack and ruin. Overpredominantly functional approach to design is not the only possible approach, nor is it one to be proud of. To rule out ornament as unsound is just as pernicious as to turn out bad and spurious ornament; and these are the two chief design sins of our time.

Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor and contributions should be addressed to The Editor, Design Review, P.O. Box 1628, Wellington, C.1., accompanied by a stamped addressed envelope. If written under a pen-name, the writer must enclose his name and address.


The Editor is always glad to consider any contributions. Where possible, they should be accompanied by photographs of the illustrations suggested. Original works of art should not be sent unless requested.

For the purposes of reproduction, glossy photographs are preferable, and contributors are reminded that the appearance of good objects can be easily ruined by bad photography.


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None left of Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Few copies of Nos. 4, 5, 6 (Volume I).


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