What the World Needs Now is Ornament

Posted inDesign Thinking

For most of our 12 years together, my husband has affectionately called me a decorator crab. Decorator crabs adorn their exoskeletons with materials from their environment to hide from or ward off predators. The phenomenon is known as aposematism, from the Greek apo (away) and sema (sign). In this way, the decorator crab’s decorating is equal parts collection, preservation, defense, and ornamentation, but I would argue it is also design. Decorator crabs are excellent designers: both in the wild and in captivity, consciously or otherwise, they exhibit a facility with form, color, scale, module, repetition, and what I see as a flair or even joy for ornament.

I believe my work shares many of the same traits as the decorator crab: I collect and ornament as much for pleasure as for preservation and recollection— and increasingly, through computation, I am able to make new ornaments, new patterns, and new collections. I superimpose my patterns much like Vladimir Nabokov folded his magic carpet— and like him, I don’t care if visitors trip. In fact, it’s better if they do, if only to question what ornament can do for them, or perhaps more critically, what we can do with it. And while the notion of ornament might be a human idea, self-adornment is a truly trans-species phenomenon. From crabs to birds to insects, from sea to land to sky, our animal kingdom has worlds and rituals of ornament that we know little about, that I think we should value more and study further before we lose them forever, and by our own hand.

Many have written on various posthuman conditions that, at a very simplified level, speculate on the future(s) of humanity. But what if these speculations are not limited to the romanticism of hybridization or material transcendence? What would it look like to go beyond the cyborg musings of science fiction and actually venture into post- or even anti-humanism, with ornament by our side? What if we abandoned our bodies, or consciously pushed our species to its own extinction? What if we are already in these processes, and by our own volition? We are at war— in real life and online. And while we distract ourselves with division, we are destroying our Earth, killing its life, and in doing so, we are well on our way to eliminating each other. But perhaps this final point is neither good nor bad. Perhaps extinction is amoral, and through it we might learn to make a new life— without living.

Maybe there is a place for us without us in it; a place of emergence, abundant with thought, emotion and memory, but potentially quite devoid of bones and flesh. Perhaps there is a somewhere over that rainbow, where we might embrace each other without our bodies; with just soul and conscience, empathy and love. I believe there is such a place, and I think we might already be in it. These days, I send love to my family by pressing non-existent buttons on sheets of glass connected to a network that delivers it across our planet instantaneously. This technology is not new. We are already living a fantastic future, where ornamental thought bridges new divides. Using ornament, I believe we can and will push this thinking even farther, to new interdisciplinary and perhaps posthuman frontiers.

For the past several years, I’ve been manipulating open-source code inspired by the tessellations of Sébastien Truchet (1657–1729) and three-dimensional fractals known as Mandelbulbs, named after the polymath Benoît Mandelbrot (1924–2010). The attached works represent just a sample of what I’ve found: a seemingly-inexhaustible font of ornamental opportunity embedded within these two- and three-dimensional infinities. In mutating, zooming, panning, cropping, reflecting, layering, skewing, rendering, and animating, I have lost myself within these recursive worlds— these ornaments, if you will— for days and weeks at a time. 

In my exploration, I have found that ornament begets more ornament, just as infinity folds, splits and doubles from the cell to the cosmos. This is a dangerous thing for a decorator crab such as myself, in that I imagine it is much like traveling our universe at warp speed: everything is everything, and I can’t get enough of it. And in my quest for ever more, I have found something quite strange and profound about these ornaments: they contain the code of nature— the very patterns and geometries of our universe. Primordial and auto-generative, they exhibit what Mandelbrot called the “uncontrolled element in life”— the achingly beautiful “roughness and self-symmetry of nature.” Within these images, I also hear Burt Bacharach, or perhaps just my own poor rendition: what the world needs now is ornament, sweet ornament— it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.


Aleks Dawson is a designer and educator with a special interest in ornament. All images by the author.