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Visual Delight: Ornament and Pattern in Modern and Contemporary Design

May 16–September 20, 2009

"The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects...We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way through to freedom from ornament." —Adolf Loos in Ornament and Crime, 1908 As modernism took hold in the early years of the twentieth century, designers began to view ornament as unnecessary and even morally offensive to modern industrial production. Increasingly they shunned decoration in favor of rational, austere designs that were devoid of extraneous embellishment. Despite their criticism, however, ornament was never entirely exorcised from consumer culture, and by the late 1950s designers were returning to an informed discussion about ornament and its symbolic value. Architect Robert Venturi wrote influentially in the 1960s about ornament as symbol, and in the late 1970s and 1980s figures associated with the design group Memphis, among others, reveled in the use of abstract surface patterns to clad buildings and to decorate furniture and decorative arts. Today ornament is once again garnering attention, much of it fueled by the refinement of technologies such as laser cutting, digital printing, and rapid prototyping, which make possible intricate patterns and three-dimensional shapes. Unlike the abstract decorative schemes generated by the Memphis-era designers, contemporary ornament is largely influenced by nature, figures, and even traditional patterns, such as the crocheted lace that inspired Marcel Wanders's "Crochet" table and Marie-Louise Gustafsson's "Carrie" bicycle basket. This exhibition, drawn primarily from the Museum's modern and contemporary design collection, features some thirty objects dating from the mid-1960s to the present. From Robert Venturi's large-scale building façade panels decorated with oversize flowers to delicate, laser-cut lighting fixtures by Tord Boontje, the works in this gallery celebrate the myriad ways in which ornament and pattern enhance our visual experience.

Main Building


Diane Minnite • Collections and Research Assistant

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