When it comes to the ornament, tradition and modernity seem to clash irreconcilably. For centuries, decorative accessories were considered beautiful and indispensable. Ornaments were ascribed qualities such as cosy, decorative and sensual. However, the invective of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, who took aim at object and building decoration more than 100 years ago in “Ornament and Crime” and castigated ornamentation as a waste of material, labour and health, has also become famous. Ornamentation or pure form, that remains the question.
From 13 October to 28 April 2024, the exhibition “The Ornament – Exemplary Beauty” at the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MK&G) aims to illustrate “the change in design and meaning of the ornament in different eras” with 80 objects from the collection. Japanese paper stencils, Persian embroidery and wallpaper by the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, are among the objects on display. Decorated ornamental prints are set against the pure form products of the German design schools of the 20th century; an illuminated mirror by Ettore Sottsass, who co-founded the Memphis movement in the 1980s, ironically celebrates the return of the ornament in design. Contemporary positions, according to the announcement, expanded the design discourse to include the political dimension of the ornament and drew attention to current issues such as climate change and feminism.
The starting point of the show is the collection of ornamental engravings in the MK&G’s collection, which illustrates the development of ornamental forms from the 15th to the 19th century. As part of the “model collection” created by founding director Justus Brinckmann (1843 to 1915), the engravings served as a basis for drawing and a source of inspiration for students at the School of Arts and Crafts (today the HFBK Hamburg). In order to preserve arts and crafts and manual production in an increasingly industrialised society, designers, artists and architects joined forces in the Arts and Crafts movement in the mid-19th century. The craftsmanship required for these demanding designs is revealed by wallpapers, precise, detailed prints with floral patterns, from the manufactory of William Morris (1834 to 1896). Persian embroideries and katagami, Japanese paper stencils for dyeing fabrics, prove influences on European ornamentation. Graphics and furniture of the Bauhaus and the Deutscher Werkbund then deliberately refrained from any kind of decoration, whereas the Milan Memphis movement attacked the prevailing functionalism with colourful patterns and playful interiors. Finally, antique glass shards illustrate the origins of ornamental design, which is taken up by the designer Anna Resei in her project “water carriers”. Anne Meerpohl and Anna Tautfest from the Experimental Class at the HFBK Hamburg use the replicability of ornamental forms to communicate feminist content in their “Care Station”.
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