Monday, August 27, 2007


Long have the paths to experimental ornamentation been barred to designers and printers since a kind of "death" of ornamentation at the turn of the nineteenth century. This end of decoration paralleled the rise of Modernist theory in the visual arts. In his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos boldly denounces ornament in the design world as manifest in furniture, fashion, and print. He argues that historically, ornament is the concern of the lower economic classes – artisans who toil endlessly merely to bedeck aristocrats in frippery. The new upper class, Loos posits, are those who have the good sense and financial resources to invest in industry with its streamlined, unadorned products, proving that they are no longer in need of labor class artisans (Loos 30). The Modernist bastions of unity, simplicity, and ahistoricity left no room for "antiquated" patterns, flourishes, and hand-crafted treasures. Of somewhat like mind is Beatrice Warde, who likens successful type in book printing to a crystal goblet, simple and invisible. "All good type is Modernist," says she (Warde). A focus on the cleanliness, efficiency, and authenticity of mechanical reproduction was all-consuming for most of the twentieth century, as evidenced by many Bauhaus-inspired designers and the advent of digital type (Krauss).

However, with the birth of Postmodern thought, especially those veins fomented in opposition to the perceived pitfalls of Modernist art (coldness, pompous claims of historical transcendence), views toward ornament began to soften. In a recent magazine article, Alice Twemlow argues for "the decriminalization of ornament", citing contemporary artists and designers around the world who integrate and exalt fancy details, such as appropriated patterns and decorative accents in type, textile, and canvas.

The theorist Edward Said asserts that "things exist not only because they come into being and are created by human agency, but also because by coming into being they displace something else that is already there" (Said 166). Twentieth-century Modernism replaced the grand trappings characteristic of the aristocratic classes of the previous centuries. Now, especially in the design world, a new vanguard is rising. Geometries are superseded by pastiches of pattern. Exaggerated serifs, hand-drawn ligatures, and text as both texture and image are replacing rigid sans serif settings in book, poster, and packaging designs.

I, too, argue for The Decriminalization of Ornament. I will utilize the letterpress, a traditional printing tool, to champion and delve into the possibilities of experimental and decorative type. Though the letterpress comes with all of the theoretical baggage inherent in the use of machinery for artistic reproduction, the exploration of hand pressed, ornamental lettering will visually fuse old (machine technique) and new (experimental design choices) in a celebration of type as both subject, object, and decoration. Arakawa and Gins describe the theory behind my method the best:

The world as one finds it: a concatenation of partial procedure of procedure-like occurrences, diffuse or defused procedures, incomplete or bedeviling ones (Arakawa and Gins 52).

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