The Nature of Ornament: A Summary Treatise

As presented by Tom Phillips to the Architecture Forum  in the Reynolds Room of the Royal Academy of Arts on 28th October 2002, later published in the Architectural Reveiw 1st April 2003.



Ornament is born of a primary and elemental urge.

It tries to make sense of the world and make the world make sense.


The energies that give rise to conscious art are first found in ornament. In many cultures art takes no other form.


Ornament is high art hidden everywhere.


Ornament is the stylistic signature of time and place and peoples.


Ornament mirrors the structures of cosmologies (or is even cognate with them in the sense that cosmologies may be born out of the repertoire of ornament). The rings, stratifications, branchings etc. in nature inform ornamental and cosmological systems alike.


Ornament is a universal language that is transmitted by contact, trade and knowledge: its essence is universally understood even when its sources of symbolism have become arcane.


This essence is the visual grammar of the ornament and has priority over any reference it encodes.


Such universality is made possible by the relatively small generative syntax of ornament.


These syntactical elements are all paraphrases of nature; stripe, hatching, dot and the whole treasury of primal signs are all present in nature.


The first marks known to have been made by a human being (on a piece of ochre 77,000 years ago in Southern Africa) echo cracks in mud or figurations in rock.


These elements, as soon as they are divorced from nature, become abstractions.


The elements (again reflecting a common process in nature) can be both manipulated and emphasised by linear or field repetition.


Art and mathematics are also cognate in such abstractions. Firstly in the act of abstraction itself and secondly in the system developed as counting or mnemonic devices. As mathematics can be stored in the form of ornament, so ornament is secreted in the potential of mathematics.


Nature is plundered as the pattern book of ornament and in turn one authenticates the other.


Just as art is hidden everywhere in ornament so science also finds many of its formulations already inherent in ornamental practice. The implications of map theory, game theory, topology, the fractals of chaos theory have all lurked in ornament, awaiting their elevation to science.


The language of science acknowledges with the names it takes up such as grid and trellis the prior presence of ornament and its intuitions.


Both the macroscopic and the microscopic structures imaged by science (as, recently, in the Hubble telescope and via electron microscopy) corroborate many of the intuited devices of ornament.


Science reciprocates by giving such ornamental devices new resonances (the helix, buckminsterfullerine) and, by playing the games of ornament, adds to the visual thesaurus (for example with the Penrose pattern).


The binary system which governs information technology is one of the most ancient staples of ornamental practice, as is the mode of visual generation by pixels in mosaic and weaving.


What ornament guesses at and expresses about an imagined world must be there for the intuitions of ornament are our visual wisdom.


Thus ornament is not only the mirror of observable nature but an explorer of its deep structures.


By this commandeering of the forms of nature ornament tries to banish fear. It signals reverence towards nature yet, simultaneously, asserts its conquest and mastery of natural forces.


Even when a culture creates demons, dragons and powerful spirits it both uses and deflects their power by incorporation in ornament.


The gods and mysteries of a culture protect its goods and artefacts in the form of ornament: as a kind of visual spell.


Thus nature and myth serve as well as are served by ornament, which in turn serves form.


It serves form by asserting surface. In both graphic and relief modes it enriches surface with a secondary potential of light and shade.


Ornament serves strength with strength. It is not an afterthought as is decoration. It is not merely applied but becomes one with the object it helps to create.


It is neither an indulgence nor an extra but an imperative and is achieved through transformation. It does not act cosmetically.


In order to inhabit the world of ornament, representation,, narrative, or script must be subject to a transformation. They must exist at least at one or more removes from the merely referential.


These transformations of nature into pattern, of narrative into schema of figuration into device are what gives ornament its authentic character.


Wherever such transformations subjugate the literal or naturalistic modes of representation the resulting ornament takes on and absorbs the power and energy of its sources.


In that sense ornament contains a residue of the earliest magical or animistic beliefs.


Illusion in all its modes and manifestations is the enemy of ornament. Abstraction is the heart of the matter. It is the pole to which ornament urges itself, even while assimilating the figurative. In the history of ornament it is descriptive or illusionistic figuration that is aberrant.



There is hardly a record of any group or community discovered, or known by its excavated traces, which had not developed a practice of art.


Such a practice would always include ornament whether other means of expression had been devised or not.


In one society in Africa where no aesthetic enterprise had been identified, later fieldwork indeed revealed an art form, but one that produced no artefacts. The group in question adopted the markings of their cattle as their expression of art, discussing the aesthetic merits of living ornament. Animals were admired (and valued for transactions) according to an aesthetic consensus.


This conceptual version of ornament can be regarded either as an extreme case of primitivism or, just as convincingly, as the ultimate in sophistication.


Ornament is thus adaptive. It adjusts to the mode of life of its makers. Whereas a settled community might express itself in expansive architectural elaboration a nomadic group must reduce its repertoire of ornament to portable forms such as tent hangings and animal accoutrement etc.


Ornament knows no absolute of scale. The same devices and systems may be found simultaneously on a palace and on the earring of a woman passing that palace.


This flexibility, as ornament moves easily through all possible registers of scale with all variations of texture, kinds of material and colour, is one of the secrets of its disdain of class and gender and thereby of its survival.


From this we see that ornament has strategies to act both via central stations and portable transmitters. Its signals and reminders are omnipresent in society and not restricted to specialist locations like museums and churches. The manhole cover outside a cathedral may rival anything within.


In a settled society each dwelling will contain many aspects of the discourse of ornament, including traces of neighbouring or exotic cultures.


By virtue of its ubiquitous character ornament penetrates all thresholds of attention. Ornament assimilates with labour, but is assimilated without effort.



Ornament endures: it is robust in the sense that from a surviving fragment found in sand or soil its larger programs can be construed.


By this means, as well as by virtue of its transformational treatment of reference and representation, it escapes the iconoclast.


With cunning it avoids the attention of ideologues and fanatics. The most radical art can, in the guise of ornament, bypass the critique of political fundamentalists as in the case of the suprematist interior of Lenin’s tomb, visited by millions at a time when its equivalent in painting was totally suppressed.


Ornament is memorious. It acts as a house of memory uniting us with nature. It carries this information in the particular mode by identifiable visual quotation of transformed reality, and, in the general mode, by embodying essences such as plantness and animalness.


It stores our knowledge of the principles of growth and form (forking, branching, spiral) and diagramatises our experience.


It demonstrates this knowledge by variation, selecting a motif in nature as a recurrent theme to be played upon. One thinks of the acanthus or bamboo or (in Tibet) the tiger skin.


It embodies our philosophical enquiries as to the nature of nature; exemplifying in this instance Plato’s Theory of Forms.



Since ornament harnesses formal energies in nature it has political, social, spiritual and even military potential.


This is shown by its serving the hierarchies of many disparate cultures in their heraldry, emblazonments, and their signals of rank and allegiance.


The devices of ornament can amplify, by doubling and redoubling or other types of repetition and variation, these degrees of status as in heraldic quarterings and the chevrons of rank.


Ornament is thus not only the embodiment of visual order but conveys the paradigms of social order.


Being morally disinterested its elements can serve any society and any faction which appropriates them. It can on occasions serve opposite purposes as with the swastika, cross etc).


Ornament is not nostalgic nor does it trade in the picturesque.


Where it has grown out of functional reference it can be historic, as in the use of crenellation in heraldry. Where function recedes the associated ornament, in formal use, veers towards abstraction and, in more casual use, towards decoration.


Ornament can also be recapitulatory and can thus signal stylistic revival as in the case of neoclassicism


Ornament is rich in its modes of infiltration into the visual repertoire. An introduction of an exotic variant can cause a tidal wave of imitation in every aspect of design (Art Deco, Japonaiserie). Such an introduction can be made via graphic design (Mucha for example) or industrially produced artefacts (as with Guimard).


In both the cases of Mucha’s posters and Guimard’s Metro designs mechanical reproduction serves to echo the reiterative mode of ornament itself.


Ornament can therefore have a dispersed existence, experienced cumulatively.



Like nature which supplies its sources ornament can decay and, like society which gives it energy and purpose, it can become decadent.


Sometimes by competition with itself ornament when acting in a critical vacuum, becomes overripe, creating decorative nightmares of intricacy or overblown pustular monsters.


It can by this be an indicator of social ills or spiritual malaise.


This can occasion a flight from ornament (Shaker carpentry, the severity of Loos) although what appears a denial merely reasserts that structures, of themselves, constitute, in their refined state, true ornament.


Ornament, unlike decoration operates subtractively as well as additively, reducing objects to their necessities. Its ambition in such cases is timelessness as when it attempts to make the primal cup, or (as with Christopher Dresser) the ultimate toast rack.


It cannot of course truly escape time since each epoch has its own characteristic version of timelessness.


The mode so to speak of subtractive addition is attained by the concealment of construction. The fully ornamented pyramids of Gizeh must be imagined with their original cladding of smooth marble: magical objects with not a brick in sight.


The obverse of such a principle (as in bridge building) is the ornament of exposed technology.


Music is the ultimate art form where technology is exposed. It is built before your very eyes and ears. It also serves as an exemplar of ornamental processes, both in its largest structures (thematic variations, canon, fugue) and in its details, such as turns and trills.



Standard and necessary human activities involving making such as engineering, building or pottery suggest, at only a small remove from their most workaday formats the possibility of ornament. The stone wall, with a simple variation, becomes for example the signature structure (echoed in beadwork) of old Zimbabwe culture.


Even where it exhibits great apparent complexity ornament is parsimonious of means. Its basic processes are simple; ordering, echoing, accumulation, accretion, listing, arranging, repeating.


The great degree of intricacy that can (equally with simplicity) characterise ornament may only be sustained by bold and balanced forms like the paddles from the Solomon Islands brought back by Captain Cook, whose elegant severity is covered by a mesh of tessellated carving.


Intricacy can never hide poverty of form: it will only (as happens with much decoration) compound that poverty by insistent echo.


Intricacy often takes the form of a reiterative version of simple elements: in this it also behaves like music whose arpeggios and repeated figures are structural. Elaboration of this kind provides the sole content of much current minimalist music where time is the surface to be covered.


Intricacy in ornament induces wonder by its celebration of time. It is akin to a mantra or repeated prayer, visible devotions registered in meticulous toil.


It is not the province of the old (especially in epochs and places lacking spectacles) and therefore embodies youthful energies.


Technical procedures in themselves give rise to extensions of ornament. In the making of mosaic the patterning of the tesserae precedes any subject motif. Fine lace grows on, and develops out of, its own necessary web.


In this it echoes the technologies of nature whose strategies give rise to particular visual possibilities in the manner of the imbrication of fish scales or the interference patterns of butterfly wings.


Such structural processes can be enlisted either to emphasize the formal motifs or to provide a counterpoint. This occurs for example in all processes that have systems of layering or links such as weaving, bricklaying.


Even accidents of process can be subsumed into the aesthetic of ornament, for example craquelure in ceramics, and the patch repairs on Kuba cloths.


Error and accident are gracenotes of ornament and can lead to creative variation. Perfection is not always sought. In the middle ages it was thought that where there was a risk of not making a mistake, some error had to be introduced: since perfection was the province of God alone.


Ornament is, in essence, communal even when performed by an individual. It is the work of time’s orchestra. It is in a profound sense performance art.


It is no accident that so many of ornament’s highest manifestations are anonymous. While examples can of course be assigned to a named maker, ornament in general tends to resist any cult of personality.


Ornament disregards gender. Women in many societies may have the monopoly of artistic expression (like the Ndbele of Southern Africa) or have complete creative areas, such as pottery, which only they can practice.


On a practical level some feats of artistic enterprise can only be performed by women. Lacemaking calls for delicate fingers. There are even carpets too fine for any adult to work that have to be made by young children.


The hiding of art in ornament has caused historians to search for women’s artistic achievements in the wrong areas, in the pictorial arts.


Such erroneous researches result from too restricted a definition of art itself. Basketry, textiles, pottery and glass still lie outside the scholarly discourse of art history, whose false construct of artistic heirarchies is luckily now being eroded.



The delimited nature of ornament makes it unsuitable for the carrying of human emotions. Love and passion go into its making rather than its meaning. Ornament itself is not soft hearted: this is the province of decoration, its sentimental cousin.


The great schism between art and craft is one of the symptoms of a heirarchical view of art and a particular casualty of modernism.


In the west ornament has been debased as a result of the flight of art from craft. Art bears off its richest forms and denies credit to its erstwhile practitioners.


The use and usage of the word craft, with its second division feel, has a lot to answer for.


Many fine artists who so define themselves would in earlier centuries have been rugmakers and designers of wallpapers rather than disappointed painters and sculptors.


The disciplines, traditions and refinement of process of such a craft would have given them a safer scaffold for the scaling of artistic heights. The fabricators of ornament stand securely on each others shoulders.


The last of the riches to be pillaged by fine art from ornament was its greatest treasure, abstraction.


The complete vocabulary of abstraction had always been present in ornament, where love of the wayward figurations of stone and wood complements exploration of the strict geometries of honeycomb and crystal.


Entire schemes of ornament have been derived from the search for abstract diversity in nature as in certain marble church interiors like that of Sta. Maria dei Miracoli in Venice where stone is framed by chosen stone, some veined or striped, others cloudy or turbulent.


In such a scheme God is the featured artist in his own place of praise.


Such examples of the aesthetic of abstract expressionism were endorsed and improvised upon by painters of the renaissance like Fra Angelico, and Andrea del Castagno.


It is often forgotten that a large part of the production of major artists (Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Holbein, Velasquez even) was of ornament, much of it now lost and even considered in its time as ephemeral as in the use of festive installations, and banners.


Ornament is the laboratory of aesthetics: what has often been deemed experiment in fine art has been practiced and developed first in ornament.


Abstraction had its home in ornament (as it still has in many cultures). Once the abstract became also a province of fine art ornament found much of its occupation appropriated.


Abstraction which had thrived and been appreciated for millennia while in the safekeeping of ornament, now became a contentious factor in modern western art.


Ornament has thus in the west found itself relegated to the world of craft, a term itself now debased in relation to the announced aspirations of fine art.


Some advanced cultures like Japan have resisted this division in varying degrees. Many Islamic states for reasons of religious proscription have no such debate.


Ornament thrives because of its communal nature. It escapes both the elitist and financially speculative worlds.


It is the sole area of art where the disgraced terminology and ideals of Marxism continue to be relevant.


Ornament cannot die. It invents new projects and can spring up in unexpected areas. The most recent of these is the work, often ephemeral, of graffiti artists. Without reward (and often at the risk of the opposite) these prove the imperative of ornament for ornament’s sake.


The use of calligraphy in ornament is as old as writing itself and the graffiti artists of the late 20th century especially in New York brought calligraphic expression to a new height comparable with the best of Islamic letter-based art or mediaeval illumination.


Ornament however, including the calligraphic type, has its own mode of communication. In that it has meaning it bypasses the customary modes of the literal or metaphorical and inhabits Dante’s final category of signification, the anagogical, where form embodies truth directly, making as it were a spiritual equation.



False ornament is easily spotted. Its principal misunderstanding is a lazy contradiction of form. Other clues are an evident design tautology, a use of literal illustration or unassimilated narrative.


In respect of nature the ultimate ornament is camouflage whereby we return human artefacts to an abstraction which merges with natural randomness.


For all other purposes ornament tends to advertise the materials it uses: their characteristic hardness, malleability, transparency, each of which commands a relevant technique.


No material is excluded: the recorded range is already complete from dung to gold.


Any new element produced, from a bullet case or bottle top to plasticated telephone wire, can be appropriated and will generate its own stylistic possibilities.


Materials held precious by any culture are featured in ornament, often disposed emphatically as a punctuation of the design.


Yet ornament is by and large democratic. It may use, but does not need, precious material.


Ornament is parsimonious even when it seems to be opulent. It thrives on constraints and relishes limitations.


Rules and systems lead it to its best inventions; just as the discipline of verse liberates the poet.


It recycles materials as well as motifs and discovers itself by their appropriation. The most recent acquisition of the African Galleries of the British Museum is a chair made from guns surrendered in amnesty.


Ornament has no vanity. It is comfortable at all points on the social scale and at any degree of utility or anonymity.


As art is hidden in ornament so ornament itself can thrive unadvertised in unconsidered locations. It can hide in the practise of gardening or flower arrangement.


Thus the most intricate manifestations of ornament may occur in humble or serviceable objects a loin cloth or a basket.


Objects of virtue in such utilitarian forms have long escaped the notice of the self styled world of connoisseurship.


These tend to be works of the hand (still our best implement). In earliest times the pinching of a pot rim in pie crust fashion or its serration by the fingernail brought a pot to conclusion via ornament.


The moment such markings made by one potter were compared with and preferred to those of another the whole great engine of art started up. Aesthetics (which must be considered one of the most primitive disciplines) criticism, patronage, commerce soon get underway on a road that leads to schools of style, salons, academies and our great museums.


The whole recipe of art was present at its birth in ornament; form, line, tonality, material, disposition, colour.


Colour is of itself ornament. Cultures have sought nature’s brightest hues of mineral, dye, feather or beetle carapace for use in ornament: others have restricted the range of colour to serve sobriety or to retreat from excess.


Ornament responds to any extension given to the colour range by technology (as in enamels, stained glass). It is, by tradition, experimental.


Thus there are hierarchies of colour. A colour by virtue of its rarity or difficulty of production (Tyrean purple, Iznik red, lapis lazuli) can have the status of a precious material and be used accordingly.


The quest however for precious materials can be a snare leading to deformation of ornament by gratuitous enrichment e.g. encrustation of gems etc. This is a typical trap of decoration.



By decoration we mean what is added to things but is not germane to them by structure or significance and the use of motifs and treatments that are not formally digested and lack transformation.


Decoration is parasitic in that while it piles up on or spreads over its host object it does not add to its aesthetic value. It is simply cumulative in that it has no more reason to stop than to start.


Decoration quotes ornament. For this reason no distinction is usually made between the two.


There is of course a grey area between ornament and decoration where one or other strives to compensate for poverty of form. This is usually an indicator of an uncertainty or fracture in social life. In such times decoration, where panic often takes the form of elaboration, will tend to prevail.


Whole museums and collections in the western world dedicated to the decorative arts often contain little or no true ornament (as in the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House) and hence no art.


Such collections amass objects made for the rich and powerful in which craftsmen have sacrificed taste on the altar of decorative complexity, to make as it were a metaphor of the detailed fuss their idle patrons demand around them in life.


Such museums of the meretricious mislead the public by promoting decoration above ornament. It is as if they elevate the diseased above the healthy body.



The arguments of this paper attempt to drive a wedge between ornament and decoration.


Decoration is palliative. Its banishment, as anyone moving into a dwelling too ripe with décor knows, can be an act of aesthetic piety.


A paradox of this process is that, when such decoration is removed, ornament, in the form of just proportions and integral architectonic features etc, is revealed. These elements may well be more elaborate than what covers them.


Another kind of paradox arises where the quality of ornament relates directly to the value of its components. This occurs because in any aesthetically healthy community it is the best artist who will be entrusted with the finest materials. Thus the true hierarchy is aesthetic and artistic even when it appears to be material.


Opulence has its climactic assertion by total coverage; the golden dome, the jade princess. Thus at the point of highest opulence we find the greatest simplicity.


The ornamental mode of such coverage is achieved by the type of articulation and amplified by faceting appropriate to the material which in turn patterns the light that falls on the object.


Articulation also finds its models in nature. The perfect platonic form of the necklace (and in Africa used as such) is the spine of a snake.


Human physiology is also reflected in ornament by its intervals and proportions; the breath, the measure of step, the scale of hand and the canons of anatomy all provide human resonance.


Thus ornament even when it seems to be cold artifice is, at its most successful, ultimately humanistic.


It reinforces at all points our kinship to the world.


Lacking the emotional and intellectual agendas built up by fine art ornament represents the untrammelled celebration of our creativity.


Ornament avoids such agendas by its communal practice and evolutionary character. The refinement of a Japanese basket is less the result of individual temperament than a collective aesthetic produced over generations.


Its solipsism is innocent. We cannot via ornament praise ourselves without at the same time reverencing nature and celebrating whatever intimation of a divine order our varied cultures possess.


A life without ornament is unimaginable. It is one of the preconditions of humanity.


Though we lack the earliest clues of human artistic activity the first setting of stone by stone, bone against bone must have signalled the dawn of articulate consciousness.


Ornament is the visual world at play. However serious the matter and however ambitious the mode all great ornament has wit.


Ornament transforms with joy what lies in its path, what it serves and what it uses.


Ornament is the praise song of humankind to the world it has made in terms of the world that it found. It vivifies the manufactured world to make it one with nature.


Whatever may be said about ornament here or elsewhere, of a philosophical nature, the child who makes a daisy chain has grasped its principles completely.