What do tattoos, wallpaper, graffiti, and cake decorations have in common? They can all be considered forms of ornament, detailed embellishments that have added complexity and beauty to surfaces for millenia. But while this ancient art form often contains deep meaning, European modernist theory attempted to erase ornament from the design world. 

A staunch believer in the supremacy of Western European culture, Austrian architect Adolf Loos felt that “cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of Ornament from articles in daily use.” Unsurprisingly, that cultural evolution was aimed toward Western European cultural norms. In his seminal 1908 treatise, “Ornament and Crime,” Loos uses traditional Papuan tattooing to illustrate his belief that surface decoration is “primitive,” “childlike,” and in some cases “criminal.” He writes that “the child is amoral. So is the Papuan, to us […]. He is no criminal but if a modern man kills someone and eats him, he is a criminal or a degenerate.” In other words, when white  Europeans succumbed to this urge for ornament, he considered them to be “either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.”

Loos’s racist tirade continues to be highly influential in European and American modern design; it is still widely assigned in most architecture programs to this day — and all too often without a critical lens. The result of these programs absorbing “ornament as crime” into dogma is that such surface patterns have only recently reemerged in design. Even so, ornament is still highly tamed and policed in architecture, and is not given the attention it deserves in our conversations. A book dedicated to ornament is so rarely published that a new contribution to the subject is cause for celebration. 

The title of Thomas Weil’s New Grammar of Ornament (Lars Müller Publishers, 2021) positions his book as an update of Owen Jones’s classic 1856 compendium The Grammar of Ornament. Still reprinted today, Jones’s Grammar is a brilliantly illustrated anthology of ornamental styles from around the world. While it’s tempting to see his love of ornament as a contrast to Loos’s bigoted reasons for banishing it, Jones himself viewed patterns from African countries (as just one example) to be less evolved or “primitive,” painting them as “savage” civilizations. 

Page spread from Thomas Weil’s New Grammar of Ornament

Rather than categorize ornamental patterns by region, Weil’s New Grammar offers a taxonomy of forms: minimal, geometric, and floral. And instead of copying extant patterns, as Jones did, Weil presents stylistic experiments through his own artwork. These experiments are immensely valuable as they offer designers tools to push the bounds of surface design with thought exercises of line and form. Colorful, playful, and bold, his personal explorations are bookended by academic analyses of the history of ornament, by Weil as well as Manuel Will and Heinz Schütz. 

Manuel Will, whose fields of study are Paleolithic archeology and Paleoanthropology, argues that the more simplistic or “MINIMAL” types of ornament that are common today (featuring simple stripes and dots, rather than arabesque flourishes) are in fact an “anthropological constant” with ancient artifacts. Thomas Weil, an architect and scholar of Persian ornament for over three decades, was inspired to write this book by delicate lines carved in rock at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, which date back over 72 thousand years. He explains that modern minimal designs have their origins with “constructivist, Suprematist and concrete art,” but that if we look further back, “a similarly reduced form language” already existed in examples ranging back to 70,000 BCE. This is quickly followed by a question: “Doesn’t this justify any suspicions that such minimalist vocabulary is an anthropological constant that continues to surface?” 

Heinz Schütz attributes the rise of sleeker forms in 20th-century Russian constructivism, Bauhaus, and De Stijl to an effort to “overcome the divide between art and applied or utility art,” and that “patterns and grids” became more common in the later 20th century in an aspiration to be “antisymbolic, antinarrative, antillusionistic and antiexpressive.” He highlights Andy Warhol’s “conceptual machine” as a response to a “world determined by industrial and medial reproduction,” which is followed by an acknowledgement of the renaissance of non-minimal ornament in the postmodern Pattern and Decoration art movement of the 1980s. 

An Adinkra mourning cloth from 1817 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Weil’s own entry posits that “Ornament and Crime” was a response to the “heyday in excess” that ornament enjoyed at the end of the 19th century. While he acknowledges that ornament’s erasure became a “creed of sorts,” he also claims that it “lived on as a geometric architectural principle of construction, and, in a different way, in art, in order to finally be rehabilitated in post-modernity.” None of these entries, however, mention the milieu of academic racism and classism that caused major shifts in how design treated ornament. 

Rather than a cultural survey, Weil presents his designs almost as an experiment in geometry. He wouldn’t be the first: since the work of Evgraf Fedorov in 1891, mathematicians have determined 17 categories, called “Wallpaper groups,” that virtually all repeating pattern designs fall into. But using math to study cultural patterns and designs does not have to be divorced from culture itself. In fact, there’s an entire field of “ethnomathematics,” in which researchers analyze ornamentation in crafts like folk embroidery. Abu Qouder Fouze and Professor Miriam Amit have analyzed the “ethnomathematics of Bedouin women,” showing how their embroidery reflects a deep understanding of complex geometrical laws. Weil cites the special attention paid to geometry in Islamic artwork in spheres where there is less figural imagery, but otherwise does not explore these types of previous mathematical innovations. 

Ethnomathematics endows ornament and its designers with respectability and weight in a world where it’s treated as frivolous at best, and at worst, criminal. Pattern design is still relegated to “pure surfacism,” a phrase that architect Juan Carlos Calderón used to dismiss the creations of Freddy Mamani, the visionary creator of colorful Neo-Andean architecture

Page spread from Thomas Weil’s New Grammar of Ornament

Loos’s “Ornament and Crime” served to frame cultural ornamentation such as tattooing or piercing as “backward,” rationalizing the colonization of cultures that participated in these art forms, and their indoctrination in Western ideals. His words fell on eager ears, those that had in the past welcomed Eugène Viollet de Luc’s 1875 “Histoire de l’habitation,” an architectural treatise that split traditional dwellings into categories that he related back to constructed racial stereotypes — none of them measuring up, in his mind, to the “natural genius” of the Aryan race. These academics did not consider the complicated poetic meanings behind West African Adinkra symbols, the ancient symbols in dye-resist wax etchings on Eastern European Easter eggs, or even the expressive potential of ornament that carries no symbolic meaning at all. 

Weil includes references to some symbolic motifs, as well as photographs of historical ornamental patterns, which his criteria for choosing are “the options for an open order, for varied readings, and the author’s practice-trained conscience as an artist.” These photographs are most common in the last chapter, “FLORAL,” which presents symbolic motifs divided into four themes:  “Suns,” “Plants,” “Archetypes,” and “Earth.” These acknowledgements of ancient Greek spirals as defensive magic serve to underpin contemporary, non-symbolic ornamentation. He distinguishes newer pattern designs under headings marked “PRESENT,” while meaning-rich motifs in folk art, even with all of its contemporary practitioners, are relegated to the “PAST.” 

Adolf Loos described Papuan tattooing as “primitive,” something of the past that is beneath the modern man. This has had lasting implications today when tattoos, including those same traditional Indigenous ethnic designs, are often considered unprofessional in workplaces. Discrimination against tattoos, along with the under-recognition of nail technicians, embroiderers, and cake decorators, may fall outside the scope of this book. But Weil’s academic approach, however rational and scientific, does not take forces like racism and classism into account. It’s difficult to summarize the current state of the ornamental culture and offer solutions for its future without addressing the cultural suppression that has shaped its recent history. Even so, the vibrant experiments lining its pages are a strong guidepost for curious designers, and Weil’s book is a welcome addition to our bookshelves. 

New Grammar of Ornament by Thomas Weil (2021) is published by Lars Müller Publishers and is available online and in bookstores.

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Isabella Segalovich

Isabella Segalovich is a Philadelphia-based artist, designer, writer, and TikTokker. Her work focuses on anti-authoritarian art history, on topics such as cultural appropriation and erasure, the racism...