Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Posted inID Mag

Earlier in my career, when I was editing a magazine for interior designers, I recall looking at the slack and drowsy faces at a Monday morning staff meeting and tossing off an idea meant to wake everybody up: “Let’s bring back wallpaper,” I said. It was a joke; I might as well have proposed bringing back spittoons. My staff looked startled and then laughed, and we went on with our usual business of making the world safe for modernism.

The year was 1999. Streamlined shapes were in vogue, concrete was flowing, dot-coms were snapping up Eames and Aeron chairs, and the only wallpaper anyone took seriously was a magazine that had nothing to do with the stuff. The idea of putting florals, stripes, or toiles in cavernous urban loft spaces was as ghastly as taking style cues from Hummel figurines. Irony was declared dead after 9/11, but in truth, irony had already slipped into a coma in reaction to the cartoonish colors and oversize historical references of postmodernism. We had learned from Las Vegas and moved on. Irony wasn’t cool anymore. Cool-which is to say, monochromatic, stripped down, functional-was cool. But it’s taken just eight years for wallpaper to become prominent again, and for an issue of I.D. that is all about decoration to be not just unfunny, but long overdue.

Why the change? Attribute it to the flexibility of our associations. A century ago, the Moravian-born architect Adolf Loos, in revolt against Art Nouveau, condemned the ornamental details that were easily manufactured through new industrial technology as dishonest, irrational, crass, and economically foolish because they still wasted the laborer’s time. His alignment of stripped-down design with social responsibility helped turn modernism into an ideology rather than just an aesthetic preference, but the politics have leached away over the decades, and the terms of Loos’s equation have shifted. Today, ornament no longer equals reckless frivolity but has taken on soul. For those starved by modernism’s austerity, elaborate surface treatments and not-strictly-functional sculptural forms represent a vast buffet of visual and tactile possibilities. The floral and animal motifs that have popped out in force replenish natural beauty in a world overtaken by sprawl. Intricately shaped buildings or furniture pieces seem not arbitrary, but rather celebratory of the new technologies that allow the designs to emerge. An exuberant tangle of styles, colors, and textures no longer suggests chaos or eccentricity but individuality-the kind of plentitude that could match any taste or need on demand.

With this issue, I.D. takes the pulse of ornament’s resurgence. Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov set the context with an essay categorizing the emerging forms of ornament (p. 44). Michael Cannell demystifies the Color Marketing Group, an international organization that determines tomorrow’s palettes (p. 50), while Amanda Fortini reports on garments designed for furniture rather than people or pets (p. 66). Colin Berry introduces Saks Fifth Avenue’s artfully modular new corporate identity, by Pentagram (p. 70), and a pack of leading architects, designers, and artists offers proposals for decorating a modernist icon: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (p. 76). Because the emotional content of pattern and ornament brings manufactured objects closer to traditional definitions of art, the feature well also presents a trio of articles under the heading “Design on the Cusp” that explores the razor-thin boundary between art and design (pp. 60, 72, and 88).

“Patterns are above all one thing: border-crossing,” writes the German art historian Annette Tietenberg in Patterns in Design, Art and Architecture (Birkhauser, 2005), a book that collects a liberal number of recent examples. “So whoever works with patterns is close to no longer knowing any limits.” Designers who have toiled comfortably under constraints for a century may get dizzy from such broad horizons, but if this issue is any indication, that won’t stop us from enjoying the view.

Swiss artists Lang/Baumann’s Beautiful Walls #14 (2005) at Helmhaus Zurich. See “The Artists Doth Protest,” p.60