Design vs Decoration

A few years ago, my husband and I visited Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural masterpiece in rural Pennsylvania. That led to some serious Netflix bingeing on architecture and modern design. I had to devour a few library books, too. It’s always fun getting lost in a new topic and letting it dance around your brain.

One little fact kept coming up and I’ve been musing on it. I thought you might find it useful and interesting.

Modern design avoids decoration unless it is an integral part of the structure.

That stopped me in my tracks. Until then, I’d never thought of decoration as being separate from design. But, wow, it sure can be!

What the above sentence means is that modern design doesn’t feature filigree, motifs, or other doo-dads applied to the surface of things in order to decorate them and give them flavor and meaning. When you look at modern design (see gallery below), you’ll see lots of clean lines where the entire structure is one cohesive design. Everything you see is part of the structure and has a function. There is no decoration. (I’m illustrating these points with architecture because it’s iconic and therefore easy to visualize. But you can see similar trends in furniture, objects, clothing, and yes, wall art.)

Contrast this to Victorian design, where there are lots of decorative elements applied to the surfaces and edges of things. Or perhaps baroque design. Or even neo-classical design. In these styles of architecture, decoration is part of the design. 

That’s what was so groundbreaking, historically, about the modern design movement. Until that point, intentional design always included decoration. The modern design movement  stripped the concept of decoration from the concept of design. (And you can also see this factor in the clothing, furniture, and art of modern design.)

What does this mean for us working in polymer clay? It means that we can also think of decoration as being separate from design. The “bones” of what you create CAN be separate from the decorations (eg. texture, color variation, silkscreens, crystals, stamps, motifs) that you apply to it.

This could apply to anything, be it a pendant or a dragon. If you stripped the decorations from the surface of it, would the composition of the design still work? Would it still convey the message that you want to convey? And how do the added decorative elements (if any) change the message? If you add decorative elements, do they enhance the impact of your design’s message or do they detract from it?

Have a look at the following polymer clay works. How does decoration (if any) create meaning and enhance the overall composition? Would the effect be the same without (or with a different) decoration? Would adding more decoration change the effect? 

Have a look around you today. Pay attention to design in ordinary objects and buildings in your surroundings. See the design of them as separate from the decorations. Get accustomed to seeing decoration as separate from design in your own work. Both design and decoration are powerful parts of your message, and they’re not necessarily connected!

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3 thoughts on “Design vs Decoration”

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking start to Monday morning, Ginger.
    Many thanks also for this great new site you are offering. It’s much appreciated.

  2. Great article Ginger! Having a background in Craft my focus was probably mostly on decoration… but over time as I yearn to become a better Artist, I have recognized a need to start focusing on the overall design first. I like the use of architecture as inspiration for this concept. Thank you… that helps!

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