Tuesday, 22 March 2011


‘Decoration’ is a subject that calls forth the knives and cudgels. One group is brave enough to call themselves ‘Interior Decorators’, to the disdain of ‘Interior Designers’, those Squires to the Knights and Lords of Architecture. (Sometimes literally such – what was it in our generation that caused architects, historically for the first time, to be added to the ranks of those with Expectations of Honours? Was it just that New Labour wanted to show how switched on it was and couldn’t quite bring itself to ennoble the Gallagher brothers or Damian Hirst, or had the Fosters and Rogers simply risen to join the captains of industry?)

In fact the boot of disdain has been on the other foot in quite recent times in at least one context. In the 1930s and 40s, when the English country house aesthetic was being established (arguably our most successful cultural export, especially in the north American direction) as the National Trust struggled to rescue our ancestral aristocratic houses from the onward march of proletarian history, authentic clutter was preferred to any notion of period consistency. John Fowler, as Patrick Wright puts it in A Journey Through Ruins, “the advocate of ‘humble elegance’ and ‘pleasing decay’ who would become the trust’s favoured ‘decorator’ in the late Fifties, scorned the idea of ‘design’.”

But in our own times, a recent panel discussion by Designers about Decoration published in the design magazine FX (August 2010) might have got further if they could have brought themselves to step back more from the rather petty current turf war between interior ‘designers’ and interior ‘decorators’ – both terms now in considerable need of explication and demystification.

When did decoration become a sure sign of moral disintegration? In the second half of the nineteenth century, in reaction to the Victorian willingness to apply decorative effects of any provenance or quantity to manufactures. The Viennese architect Adolf Loos, whose private feelings about sensuality and morality were more than a little occluded, explicitly decried ornament as a source of degeneracy and crime. Yet that did not prevent him from bestowing a richness on his room interiors belied by the elegantly stern exteriors of his houses.

We forget now how outrageous, historically and culturally, is what came to be an aesthetic and moral ban on decoration. Until the nineteenth century all art and artefacts that could achieve and afford it were decorated – Anglo-Saxon, Islamic, gothic, Aztec, Chinese, classical Greek – what is the Parthenon frieze if not decoration? The purpose of decoration was to beautify and differentiate. No-one doubted it.

It was the Bauhaus modernists (great admirers, as are most architects, of Loos) who introduced much of the confusion by claiming there was an undecorated form of any object that was inevitable, pure and moral. But the urge to beautify and differentiate could not be done away with, only disguised. There is nothing inevitable about the form of a Barcelona chair. It is pure differentiation. As, too, is the cosmetic appearance of a Dyson vacuum cleaner, however much it may relate to its engineering function.

Since we forwent decoration, we have had to differentiate through increasingly promiscuous manipulation of form, especially where we have acquired the capacity to manufacture pretty much as we like – the kind of technical virtuosity that was the Victorians’ undoing. The classical Greeks had little choice in the way in which they constructed a temple: they had soon to turn to decoration to differentiate their creations.

It makes some sense to say that ‘design’ is sculpted, whilst ‘decoration’ is applied. Yet modern architecture is sometimes characterised by a kind of applied form (as much applied as any decoration of Victorian architects) with wilful and extravagant external forms, ‘organic’ freeform or anarchic geometry, that bear little relationship to the internal utilisation of space or the logic of construction.

Time to pull the baby out of the plughole?