An exhibition in Vienna celebrates the Pattern and Decoration movement

On Ornamentation

Decorative. Ornamental. Embellished. Adorned. Depending on who you talk to (and in which era), these are all highly loaded terms at the intersection of aesthetic value and moral judgement. The 20th century fueled a battled between ornamentation and its antithesis; a conflict entwined with the politics of the time—and which survives in many sectors of the design, architecture, and art worlds in the present day.

In 1908, Austrian architect, writer, and critic Adolf Loos published his seminal essay "Ornament and Crime." This notorious polemic against Viennese Art Nouveau characterised ornamentation as a criminal act; it was a passionate call to arms against decoration itself that had a monumental impact on what would become modernist and, later, minimalist thinking—which would go on to dominate ideological approaches to art, architecture, and design over the next 70 and beyond. 

But what lay at the root of this vehemence, one might ask? What harm can decoration really do?

At mumok in Vienna—now through September this year—the exhibition Pattern and Decoration: Ornament as Promise investigates the cultural and historical foundations of the derision of ornamentation while at the same time spotlighting a unique moment in art history when embellishment found favor over minimalism.

For those needing a brief re-cap, Pattern and Decoration was an art movement that coalesced in the U.S.A. between 1975 and 1985, characterized by wildly visually luxuriant patterned surfaces; it represented a reaction against the oppressive dominance of minimalism in art and modernist functionalism in architecture and design. P&D, as the movement came to be known, was catalysed by the liberation politics of the 1960s, especially critical feminism, and inspired by cross-cultural forays into African, Middle Eastern, and Asian art. In the spirit of postmodernism, P&D artists like Miriam Schapiro, Cynthia Carlson, Jane Kaufman, Kim MacConnel, and Brad Davis sought to equalize aesthetic inspirations, drawing freely from canonized artists like Henri Matisse as well as domestic textiles, traditional craft practices, and decorative architectural elements.

On a purely aesthetic level, the extensive exhibition in Vienna—which spreads over several rooms and floors in the museum and draws on works from the collection of influential German collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig—is a joy to behold. A riot of color, richly patterned and embellished works across a wide range of media from stone mosaic to painting, drawing, collage, textiles, and ceramics are presented in the mumok’s spacious galleries. It’s a visual frolic that belies some of the movement’s more renegade tendencies, all while thumbing its nose at the very notion that there could be some stable, universal idea of "good taste," as the modernists posited.

Indeed, a key element of the P&D artists’ approach was their refusal to distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Artist Joyce Kozloff, a central figure in P&D, explained, “We never prioritized one kind of art over another, and we saw the world’s art as a continuum.” Her colleague, Robert Kushner, whose work also features in the exhibition at mumok, has said, “We all wanted to extend the range of what was allowed into the formal lexicon of Art. Textiles, great. Quilts, yes. Ceramic, sure. Carpets, why not.”

Pattern and Decoration / Ornament as Promise at the mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien Photo: Stephan Wyckoff, © mumok
These days, such cross-pollination between the creative disciplines is far more common, lauded even; but at that time, it was considered revolutionary—and, in that way at least, it mirrored concurrent movements like Memphis and Radical Design. Modernist thought was Western, male-dominated and "rational," and it violently rejected what was considered "non-Western" and "feminine"; craft traditions, textiles, patterning, and embroidery were mostly regarded as trivial or kitsch—emblems of poor taste.

Design scholar Joel Sanders wrote the brilliant essay "Curtain Wars" in the late 1990s, elaborating on the historical evolution of the upholsterer/decorator/interior designer role over the last couple of centuries and its deep-seated association with women and then gay interior designers. Sanders delineated the extent to which gender and sexual politics was at the root of the modernist abhorrence of ornamentation and fed into the clear disdain for so-called decorating over architecture. Loos had explicitly laid the groundwork for this “unmistakably misogynist and colonialist” position—as mumok calls it in the exhibition text—by advocating for the idea that the absence of decoration is a sign of a highly evolved culture, i.e. the opposite of what he considered to be primitive decorative arts and crafts from other cultures.

A 21st-century reading of the P&D movement, meanwhile, would almost certainly include a discussion around cultural appropriation and the identity politics of borrowing from other cultural traditions. The question of ornamentation remains incredibly emotionally, ethically, and politically fraught; intrinsically entwined with questions of social heirarchies, power structures, and identity. mumok writes of the exhibition: “Today, in our ever more globalized world with its great asymmetries of power, the questions that these artists posed remain urgent and relevant.”

Hybrid Ceramics by CTRLZAK, 2011 - 2016 Photo © CTRLZAK
In the design world, likewise, the subjects of remixing and juxtapositioning, a return to traditional craft techniques, and the revival of postmodernist movements like Memphis remain highly current. In the contemporary design scene, perhaps even more than other creative fields, there is a renewed enthusiasm for embellishment (like the current obsession with all things neo-deco in interior design) and evidence of designers’ willingness to move between aesthetics designated masculine or feminine. Designers like CTRLZAK move seamlessly between graphic, minimalist furniture designs and decorative textiles; indeed their Motley Tablecloths and Flagmented Pillows share a penchant for sampling and power-clashing that is highly reminiscent of P&D. Contemporary wallpaper designs from the likes of Wall81, Moustache, and Pattern17 combine elaborate adornment with the very fabric of a space’s architecture, closing the divide between ornamentation and function.

I heartily recommend getting to Vienna to see the exhibition before it closes. Even from afar, though, the exhibition offers plenty of food for thought: how notions of taste are culturally defined and thus embedded within cultural politics. How this manifests in the furnishings of your home is another clear example of the adage—attributed to feminist writer and activist Carol Hanisch and popularized by iconic figures like Audre Lorde and others—“the personal is political.” Or, as the legendary Susan Sontag put it, "rules of taste enforce structures of power." In that spirit, at least, embracing the joys of ornamentation can still be a revolutionary act.

  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.

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