Deep Surface: Ornament and Pattern


Why we need it (it’s in our nature)
How we see it (we read it)
How it works (six proposals, six themes)

Written by Susan Yelavich and edited by Denise Gonzales Crisp, co-curators

Pattern is essential to life. Sentient beings perceive pattern to make sense of otherwise random stimuli. Survival depends upon the ability to weave the threads of perception into some semblance of order, no matter how fleeting or fragile. Moreover, as pattern-seeking creatures, we humans may have a more fundamental relationship to ornament. Neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks suggests that we could be hard wired to see it. He speculates that optical migraine hallucinations—frequently patterned like oriental carpets—offer a window on the dynamics of our nerve cells. Sacks raises the possibility that “the arabesques in our minds” are literally built into our brain organization (1).

Pattern recognition may be innate; it may be necessary for coping with complexity. But we demand more of existence than mere survival. When we recognize relationships among things, we interpret what we see, and add other layers of meaning that embellish and corroborate our encounters. In a sense, we add layers of ornament. And when artists and designers use ornament to translate their perceptions into artifacts or places, that ornament becomes an extension of their worlds; as the philosopher Gianni Vattimo suggests, an extension into other possible worlds. (2) Ornament mirrors the intertwined nature of life in the 21st century. Its hybrid languages are the aesthetic equivalent of our fast-paced and complex exchanges.

Contemporary designers, who use ornament as their medium of exchange, offer us tales about objects—tales woven from their own experiences, made even stronger by their openness to outside influences. Ornament and pattern, then, tell stories. They need to be read. Whether carved on the walls of the Alhambra in Spain or stitched into the pattern of an American quilt, traditional ornament was meant to engage the mind through the eye. This is no less true today. In dialects that merge the new and the familiar, contemporary ornament communicates histories, customs, lore, and a shared appreciation of craft. Hansje van Halem’s lace “O”, above, invites us read it through the veil of lace and all that it evokes. Just as words, punctuation, prose style, grammar, and usage influence how we read, the shape, color, line, structure, and iteration of ornament shape our apprehension, and increase our appreciation, of things we often take for granted.

Ornament and pattern are form-based languages — the visual articulation of ideas. When successful, it offers a good read. And when the stories it tells are compelling, ornament and pattern go further. They show us something new. We can see ornament’s narrative at work in Neils van Eijk and Miriam van der Lubbe’s souvenir windmills: New Dutch Blue. Arabic, African, and European patterns say that those identities are part of the Netherlands today. But we’re moving ahead of our story. Coming to terms with such a monumental subject—ornament—requires a bit of pattern-seeking itself.

A very short history of love and hate.

The Latin root of the ornament—orno—means to equip, to adorn, and by extension, to honor. As a metaphor, ornament was meant to confer dignity, as in the decorated soldier. As artifact, ornament conveyed meaning: the lotus blossom was a sign of rebirth in ancient Egypt; the pineapple, carved on finials and doorways in early American homes, symbolized welcome; and the many-seeded pomegranate signaled fertility in numerous cultures and religions. Yet, for all its auspicious qualities, ornament has also been the object of skepticism and scorn. As far back as the 1st century (BCE), Cicero warned his fellow Romans about the deceptive nature of florid speech. (Verbal embellishments could conceal the speaker’s true intentions.) Over time, ornament became similarly tainted, suffering episodes of condemnation as a mask for “honest” design.

Aerial view, Alhambra, Palace of Charles V, 1527 
Courtyard Palace of Charles V  Detail, Court of the Lions, late 14th c.

In addition to being maligned as a disguise, ornament also took on pejorative associations with Eastern decadence and feminine weakness. Both prejudices can be seen operating at full tilt in 16th-century Spain when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V inserted his muscular palace into the delicate fabric of the Alhambra. The Emperor’s architectural imposition was intended to declare the strength of Catholic Spain and the inferiority of the defeated Moors, along with their ostensibly feminine ornament. The equation of ‘foreign’ with ‘feminine’ was not just a matter of metaphor, however. The phrase “feminine arts of decoration” has been used to say that the ornament and pattern produced by women in embroidery, crewel, appliqué, lace making, and other crafts belonged to the “lesser arts.” And if produced by men, which it often was, the appellation stuck. It remained feminine.

Andrea della Robbia rondels, Foundling Hospital, Brunelleschi, 1487Tiffany Studioa, Dragon Fly lamp, 1900-10

Despite all the name-calling—dishonest, decadent, weak—ornament survived and even thrived through the pendulum swings of spirit and style. It appeared in different forms, adapting to changing contexts over time—the extreme poles of which appear above in the contrast between the orderly patterns of della Robbia’s Renaissance medallions and the barely-restrained flora and fauna that are the hallmark of Tiffany’s Art Nouveau lamps.

However, with the advent of mass production, and the technologies that drove it, ornament took on new liabilities. Handcrafted decoration became too expensive: machines were cheaper than highly trained artisans, whose opportunities for apprenticeship were on the decline. In his oft-quoted essay “Ornament and Crime,” written in 1906, Viennese architect Adolf Loos observed that: “…in those trades that languish under the yoke of the ornamental artist, no value is put on good or bad workmanship. Work suffers because no one is willing to pay for it at its true value.” (3) Decorative details produced by machine, such as stamped tin ceilings (now considered quaint), were considered poor-man’s imitations. According to Loos, this kind of inferior ornament was only suitable for the lower classes. A true aristocrat would scorn it. (4)

With ornament losing the caché of exclusivity and social refinement, new signs of prestige were needed to announce ‘good’ taste and wealth. They would arrive in the form (and forms) of modernism. Though originally intended as economical and classless, the products of the Bauhaus and its kindred schools of thought made such a sharp break with the past that they became the acquired taste of a new elite. 

Le Corbusier, Mauer (Wall), 1959 OMA (Rem Koolhass), Seattle Public Library, 2004

Beyond the declining social value of ornament, the values of design itself were shifting. The technological advances of the 20th century produced a different aesthetic. Structural elements, like the steel beams that made skyscrapers possible, were considered more relevant than surfaces ornamented with symbols. Rosettes, thistles, lilies, and oak leaves had been disconnected from their original meanings long ago. Ornament became associated with nostalgia and a fear of the new. The rare exceptions were abstract, geometric ornament, such as the wallpaper below by the great modern architect Le Corbusier, which satisfied the modernists’ criteria with its grid.

To this day, many designers view pattern that emerges from structure, like the diamond-shaped glass panes on Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Library, as a more acceptable kind of ornament because it follows the modernist dictums ‘form follows function’ and ‘less is more.’ Koolhaas’s playful distortions of modernist minimalism would not be possible, however, without the cultural shifts that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century. A new generation of designers and architects, chafing under social and aesthetic orthodoxy, began to question the norm. 

Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown: Institute for Scientific Information, Philadelphia, 1978-79

In 1966, architect Robert Venturi struck an early blow with his seminal book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Less than a decade later, in 1972, Venturi co-authored Learning from Las Vegas with his partners Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Inspired by the visual profusion the Las Vegas strip, the architects offered an even more radical critique of modernism. They famously coined the term “decorated shed,” leading to a reappraisal of the value of ornamental facades on otherwise utilitarian structures. Through their own work and their wildly successful publications, Venturi and his partners challenged their colleagues to embrace the pleasures of visual and spatial complexity, and to look for inspiration in the untutored, design of ordinary signs and buildings.

Ettore Sottsass, Carlton Bookcase, 1981 

Michael Graves, Portland Building, 1982

Meanwhile, another rebellion was brewing in Milan. The gauntlet was thrown in the early 1980s when Italian designer Ettore Sottsass co-founded the Memphis group. This loose collective of young furniture and lighting designers sent shock waves through the design world with patterns and colors that were unapologetically kitsch and gaudy. Add to those seminal influences the style of postmodernism, of the sort typified by the architecture of Michael Graves. Despite its hyperbole (note the gigantic swags and medallions of Graves’ Portalnd Building, above), PoMo—the derogative shorthand for the style—succeeded in breaking the monolith of modernism. This new open state of affairs (and styles) was compounded exponentially in the 90s, with the rise of the Internet and the development of computer software capable of increasingly more sophisticated maneuvers. Gone were the obstacles facing designers who chose to recognize (and represent) the past in the present—who understood that no future could be built on amnesia.

Atelier Manferdini, Fabric Tower, 2009 (Competition entry)  Homa Delvaray, Poster for painting exhibition of Ali Mohammadi, 2008

Not only did the technology of rapid access make history a more fungible affair, it also opened up new possibilities to rethink and remake ornament that would be legitimate for our times. A savvy manipulation of software (and a synthetic mind) allows the Iranian graphic designer Homa Delvaray to integrate Persian and Roman fonts. Likewise, increasingly complex computer algorithms enable California-based architect Elena Manferdini to model a concrete façade to look like lace. However, designers like Delvaray and Manferdini, who make the most of these new-found possibilities, aren’t interested in technology for its own sake. The computer may serve as generator for design, but without the hand, and a designer’s, discretion, digital acrobatics only produce an empty virtuosity.

The hands might be ours on the keyboard, building custom typography with Peter Bil’ak’s History Re-Mixer; or the hands might be those of the seamstresses at JunkyStyling, who construct new garments out of old. All of the designers in Deep Surface approach ornament with a particular sense of purpose, and these are parsed out in the exhibition’s six themes: Amplification, The Everyday, Kit-of-Parts, Inheritances, Elaboration, and Fantasy. The observant viewer will note that the work in these categories often share similar traits. They do. Still, among the diverse projects selected, some qualities—dominant traits, if you will—do coalesce. We invite you to consider them within their themes, but also to draw conclusions of your own. 

Peter Biľak History Type, 2004


Expansion or enrichment to make a point (or several).

Here, contemporary designers use ornament and pattern to tease out the layers of meaning in a single object. The work serves as an interpreter, enriching our understanding of the places and things that populate the material landscape. Ornament that amplifies tells several stories at once. Joris Laarman’s Heatwave radiator tells two—at the very least.

Joris Laarman, Heatwave. 2003

To begin with, there is a practical plot line: Heatwave’s sensuous twists and turns actually increase the amount of heat it can generate. Secondly, the radiator is so stunning that you would never want to hide it in a box. This is where romance enters the picture: Heatwave speaks the seductive language of the baroque. Dramatic and dynamic, it appeals to our emotions. But for all its flourishes, Heatwave’s baroque is decidedly contemporary. Serialized parts can be added or subtracted as desired. It can grow like the vine it mimics, allowing warmth to expand with its form. Embodying conventions separated by centuries, Heatwave gives us a rich experience—a taste of luxurious excess from the past and beautiful efficiency in the present.

FAT, Islington Square, Manchester, England, 2006

Joseph Holtzman, art director, editor-in-chief, Nest Magazine, Vol. 17, Summer 2002

We see the same generosity in the public housing of Manchester’s Islington Square, designed by the London-based architects of FAT (Fashion.Architecture.Taste). Windows are framed by abstracted cartouches that animate the façade’s brick argyle pattern, and hint at the vernaculars that inspired the design. In fact, interviews and visits to prospective residents’ homes were a critical part of the architects’ process. With quintessential British cheek, FAT paid respect to local taste, but didn’t hesitate to introduce their own sensibility. They scaled up details, included lattice balconies, and, as the project evolved, they even added bird houses. Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland, and Sam Jacob of FAT make the point that responsible (and responsive) design needn’t be sober or somber.

Nest: A Quarterly Magazine of Interiors was similarly irreverent in service of a serious purpose. It celebrated the multitude of strange and beautiful ways that we dress the rooms we live in, be they prison cells or palatial suites. Edited and art directed by Joseph Holtzman from 1997 and 2004, Nest featured interiors that ranged from the stately to the bizarre, deploying a riotous range of graphic devices to enhance their stories. Beyond the plaid borders, striped pages, and repeated motifs, each issue was a decorated object in its own right. Variously perforated, beribboned, and scored, Nest used ornament as a tactic to engage readers. Amplification became synonymous with giving more—more pleasure, more information, more tactile satisfaction. The magazine had a distinct sensuality: some covers were flocked—begging to be touched; some issues had to be undressed to be read. Literally and metaphorically, this was design as a gift.


The constantly changing nature of daily lives that yearn for stability.

Ela Cindoruk, Doily news

When Turkish designer Ela Cindoruk cuts paper doilies out of newspapers, she merges a time-honored ritual with her own sense of time. The news advances daily, but the habit of drinking tea served on fragile paper lace is generations-old in Turkey. Cindoruk’s idea of a doily couldn’t be more alien to those of past generations’, but evokes them all the same. Hers offers a clever twist on a regular routine. Most of us read the paper with our morning coffee or tea, Cindoruk would have us read the paper through them. Of course, we’re only getting a fraction of old news (not the latest headlines), which makes the pun of Doily News even better.
Each of our everydays are full of movement. Yet, our everyday surroundings—from the local mall to a favorite piece of jewelry—give us the illusion of stability and permanence. Design can play with that tension by calling our attention to over-looked aspects of daily life

MINALE-MAEDA, Table Manners, 2005

Mario Minale and Kuniko Maeda, the partners of MINALE-MAEDA, highlight the friction between habit and ritual, starting first thing in the morning. Their Table Manners project is a witty critique of breakfast on the run. Here, bread toasted with a Delftware pattern (identical to the plate it is served on), restores a sense of tradition to a daily rite that we usually take for granted. It also might remind us of the ‘table manners’ lost when eating too quickly to savor the meal, or the company.

Vic Muniz, Fleur de Lys © Maharam, 2009

Vic Muniz also wants us to slow down. Muniz’s Fleur de Lys wallpaper seems deeply familiar. At first glance, it’s not unlike any number of elegant floral arabesques we’ve seen. A closer look yields an unsettling surprise: the scrolls are made of life-sized, broken bits of trash. The wallpaper makes a subversively eloquent argument that luxury has a price – the luxury of consumption. Muniz reminds us that we tend to treat our houses like stage sets, and our possessions like props. Convincing at first, they soon become tired and worn. Like the theater, we thrive on new productions, on acquiring new things, while the old ones accumulate in bins, boxes, and, eventually, landfills. Fleur de Lys doesn’t preach. It’s too beautiful for that. However, it does ask us to pause, to look closer at it and our habits of abandonment. In celebrating the everyday, the inconsequential takes on consequence again.

Michael Falk. Lego table, details 2011


Elements that can be assembled and taken apart in a variety of ways.

Work before play. The adage that values labor over indulgence is turned on its head with ornament designed as a kit-of-parts. To make this ornament work, to bring it into being, you have to play. Some assembly is always required, and the fun is that the instructions are open-ended. Think of it as a kind of design democracy—one that won’t collapse into anarchy because its variability occurs within a system. We are encouraged to participate in the act of design by working within a matrix shared by designers.

Michael Rock, Susan Sellars, 2x4, Andrew Blauvelt, Emmet Byrne, Chad Kloepfer, Eric Olson, Brooklyn Museum Identity, 2004

This modified do-it-yourself approach can operate on the intimate scale of graphic design, as it does with the various configurations of the Brooklyn Museum logo, created by Michael Rock and Susan Sellers of 2×4; or it can work on a more extensive scale, as in the Walker Art Center’s graphic identity, created by a team led by Andrew Blauvelt. Freedom is designed into both systems, which allows designers hired in the future to manipulate the parts uniquely. Meanwhile, variation and expansion is controlled to preserve brand continuity for the institutions and their visitors.

Above all, kit-of-parts design is perennially fresh. The measure of unpredictability included in this work is especially welcome when almost everything we consume comes to us pre-packaged and finished. These designers recognize that we have opinions about how things should look. In return, we get the satisfaction of engaging with the people who set the wheels of design in motion, and the pleasure of connecting their creativity with our own.


To extrapolate or build up (and out) from simple components

Studio Kapitza, Geometric book, 2008

Building complexity out of simple units yields a richness based on an economy of means—turning virtuosity into a virtue. Nicole and Petra Kapitza’s Geometric project confounds the imagination with possibilities. Their 100-font package can be used to generate endless variations, 264 of which are gathered in a book of the same name. Behind the bright plaids, the overlaid dots, and crosshatch stripes, is an invisible system of software—a combination of rational mathematics and irrational pleasure.

Of course, highly expressive abstractions and mathematics have a long history of mutual engagement. We need only think of Arabic tile work. Their ancient patterns reflect a belief in the infinity of the cosmos; contemporary designers are more likely to represent the infinity of the digital universe. Both elicit beauty.

Andrea Tinnes, Volvox, 1999 – 2001

Iznik tiles, c. 16th century

Coincidentally or not, Andrea Tinnes’ interactive pattern generator Volvox creates patterns that resemble another Middle Eastern genre of pattern, found in the Iznik tiles of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Where the Ottomans would have had to imagine movement from fixed shapes, we are free to animate Tinnes’ vocabulary of forms. They move and change fluidly, as we alter variables of color, transparency, scale, and rotation.

Her static suite of centered icons, seen above, was inspired by nature — not the Turkish tulips of Iznik tiles — but primitive underwater flora. Volvox is the Latin word for freshwater algae that form spherical multi-cellular colonies.1 Each shape in the system is composed of superimposed glyphs whose variables can be specified. Like the algae that inspired them, the elements of Volvox are part of an integral whole.

Fernando and Humberto Campana, Coralla Chair, 2003-04, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

The digital realm isn’t the only arena where designers investigate images and ideas of growth, or look to nature for inspiration. In developing the Corallo chair, Brazilian designers Fernando and Umberto Campana looked to branches of undersea coral. “Corallo” means coral in Italian; and in warm, clean water, coral reefs can grow to lengths of hundreds of feet. In theory, so can the Campanas’ chair. The tangles of its armature seem to sprout spontaneously, only stopping when some inestimable equilibrium is reached. As with the coral reefs that inspired them, no two chairs are alike. The results are as varied as their makers wish them to be.


Possessions, conditions, or traits from past generations.

Memories are imperfect. Ask a family member about an event from your childhood, one you are sure you remember correctly. Chances are that in the retelling, you’ll hear a different version of the story. Time distorts but, happily, it never completely erases what came before. Similarly, the ornament in Inheritances is interpretive, not a literal copy of the past. Just as we unconsciously remold our memories to suit our current needs, this work simultaneously summons the past and distorts it. The difference is that these designers do so deliberately.

Maxim Velčovský, Vase of Vases, 2008

Czech designer Maxim Velčovský brings history forward, intentionally skewing its lines and mirroring the randomness of events. The Vase of Vase’s ghostly patterns conjure up traditional motifs without any particular sense of order. Its asymmetrical patterns are made by pressing a variety of traditional Bohemian cut-glass vases into a neutral porcelain skin. Velčovský honors the distinguished histories of Czech glass and ceramics by impressing one onto the other. The combination is so ebullient that the vase can hardly contain itself.

Hella Jongerius, Sampler Blankets, details, 2005

We enjoy catching glimmers of those who came before in the objects we use today. Hella Jongerius’s Sampler Blankets are inspired by the kind of stitched compositions that used to be essential to the education of young women–though hers would never be confused with those early domestic exercises. Jongerius changes the scale and patterns of recognizable motifs — cross-stitched alphabets, animals, and plants — and appliqués them to a stark black background. She invites us to see them afresh and marvel at the lineage of invention.

Alabama Chanin, Embroidered Swing Coat, 2011

We can also see the wisdom of history in ornament that plays on inheritance. In the case of Natalie Chanin’s work, that history is living in Florence, Alabama. Since 2006, Natalie has been working with her neighbors, whose sewing techniques were in danger of disappearing, along with other small-town traditions of the rural South. Today, her label Alabama Chanin thrives on local talent. Beading, embroidery, and stitching embellish her distinctive line of dresses, coats, and capes. All the work is done by artisans who live and work in nearby communities. This collaborative production and the resulting homespun haute-fashion show that ornament can be both social and sociable, not to mention highly-coveted.


 Free play of the imagination.

Fantastical ornament refuses to justify its existence in solely practical terms. Instead, it entertains, teases, and sometimes provokes. Jeffery Keedy’s installation Ornamental Morphologies is created for sheer delight. Its graphic wildings are nothing short of mesmerizing. Try to sort out the logic of its patterns and you get lost in a maze of color and geometries In the past, some people thought that reason-resistant ornament, like Celtic knots, could ward off the evil eye. (Frustrated at being unable to “untie” its knots, the evil eye would turn its gaze elsewhere.) Keedy’s mandala-like patterns have a different kind of power. They deflect stray thoughts that might interfere with meditative respite. We don’t want to look away, and that is no small thing.

Jeffery Keedy, Ornamental Morphologies, detail, 2006

Where Keedy’s Ornamental Morophologies create movement in two-dimensions, Synchronous Objects charts it in four, giving form to movement in space and time. The “fantastic” operates in the space between moving bodies and still objects, spaces made visual through digital translation. What we see is both real and illusory. The reality: 14 real dancers moving around 20 closely-packed tables to William Forsythe’s choreography. The illusion: traces of dancers’ movements that appear in the form of colorful arcing planes and lines. Ribbons of pattern emerge from the conflation of two abstractions: dance scores and computer coding. Together, they let us witness the choreography as well as the dance. To glimpse the imperceptible enhances the fantasy and magnifies the ineffable feeling we have watching dance performed. The permutations of Synchronous Objects leave us in awe.

Ohio State University Advanced Computing Center in collaboration with “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing,” 2009

See the full roster of designers included in Deep Surface: Ornament and Pattern here.

Read the Gallery Guide here


  1. Oliver Sacks, “Patterns,” 6/24/11.
  2. Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 72.
  3. Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” [1906] in Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, (Riverside, Ca., Ariadne Press, 1998),173.
  4. ibid. 173.