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Ornament and Decoration

Traversing the history of pattern and design.

Posted 09.08.15 by Meredith Moore

Since the beginning of recorded history, human civilizations have been using ornament and decoration on clothing, buildings, furnishings, and everything in between. These motifs often tell a story about an object's purpose, its place in society, and its owner's social standing.

Motifs range from organic to precise geometrical patterns depending on the specific culture and time period. Some of the earliest adopters of ornament for purely decorative reasons were the Egyptians and Assyrians, who were heavily influenced by their environment. Motifs were based on plants and animals specific to the region such as palms, lotus, oxen, and snakes.

Throughout history, with the rise and fall of different art periods and movements, decoration also evolved in style and became increasingly or decreasingly ornamental. Some of the most extravagant examples can be seen during the Baroque and Rococo periods, while much more minimalistic motifs occurred during the Arts and Crafts Movement and Modernism.

With the growing accessibility of printmaking, ornamental and decorative motifs became popular subjects for books and these volumes shared the eclectic styles of ornament with a much wider audience. One of the most famous examples is Owen Jones' seminal design sourcebook The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, which can be viewed in the exhibit. Arranged by region, the book was notable for its thorough examination of motifs from the Middle East.

Although many of these early volumes were created using chromolithography, a few modern folios where printed using pochoir, a refined stencil-based printmaking technique popular in the late 19th century through the 1930's, originating in Paris. Known for their vibrant colors, some examples of folios printed using the pochoir method in the exhibit include Kaléidoscope: Ornements Abstraits by Ad Verneuil, 1925; Inspirations by Andre Durencéau, 1928; and Suggestions for Stuffs and Carpets by E. A. Séguy, 1920.

Endless inspiration can be drawn from these beautiful volumes on ornament and decoration, and we invite you to peruse them at your leisure. These are just a few of the gems that live in the Decker Library's special collections and we invite you to do further exploration on your own. To see anything in our special collections, please ask a reference librarian for assistance.

September 5 to September 25, 20215
Curated by Meredith Moore

Circulation Policy for Books on Exhibit

Circulating books on display in the museum cases are available for check out at any time. Please see a staff member at the circulation desk to request a book from the cases. Titles, when available, may be checked out at any time from the MRC. For books on display from the Special Collections (Cage), please see a reference librarian.

Image Information

This Page: From Kaléidoscope: Ornements Abstraits by Ad Verneuil, 1925 (NK 1535 .V47 Cage Folio)
Thumbnail: From Die Pflanze in Kunst und Gewerbe. Unter Mitwirkung Hervorragender Künstler by Anton Seder, 1886 (NK 1560 .S45 Cage Folio)