I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s something in the air. It’s a restlessness with sleek, simple, modern design. A couple years ago I read a complaint in Vanity Fair about the proliferation of mid-century décor in LA homes. Then Tord Boontje arrived and suddenly everyone wanted his light garlands. And now everywhere you look you see ornamentation, sometimes gothic, sometimes botanical, slinking into well-designed homes.
An antiques article in the New York Times asked the following questions this fall: “Has the fashion for 20th-century decorative arts reached a saturation point, if not yet in the mainstream market then in the collectors’ one that generally leads it? And if mid-century modern is finally reaching its peak, what will collectors turn to next?” (Christopher Mason, September 21, 2006) One dealer suggested Victorian, much to the horror of his colleagues. But as wealthy Baby Boomers tire with the modern and return to the psychedelic aesthetics of their youth what will this mean for the rest of us?
These questions have been occupying my mind ever since, and I’ve been noticing highly-decorative surfaces and objects more and more lately. They were in an exhibit of Viennese crystal and glass at Moss. When it came time for Ian Schrager to renovate his Gramercy Hotel he dispensed with the usual Philippe Starck and hired Julian Schnabel to turn it into a luxe boho palace. And in the boutiques of my neighborhood, flourishes and winding tendrils can be found on everything from pillows, to wall murals, to even nightlights.
America has long loved the plain. Puritans settled New England, Shakers made their mark, and but for the Victorian era and psychedelia of the 60’s ‘tis been the simple life ever since. The aesthetic mirrors America’s straightforwardness, its youth, its position as the world leader in the modern age. Heavy ornamentation, on the other hand, can read as cluttered, sloppy, fussy, ancient, musty and dusty.
Then we spent a week in that water-bourne doily of a town, Venice. And there my head just about exploded. Those lacy palazzos, that fantastic woodwork, the saints, the angels — I was utterly seduced by ornamentation. Because most of it was carefully and exquisitely crafted it looked gorgeous. And because we could trace the region’s history of ornamentation from the Byzantine era to the Renaissance and beyond, it revealed itself to be much more coherent than the decorative surfaces I’ve encountered in the States.
I also realized how unprepared I was to look at highly decorative surfaces intelligently. My Rocky Mountain suburban brain was raised on tract houses, Nagel posters, desert landscapes, and freeway signs; perfect for understanding Donald Judd. But Veronese? I don’t know.
I returned to the States eyeing the new decorative trend warily. Where is it coming from? What are its historical antecedents? If there are any, they are known only to the designers. Your average American does not know enough about the history of decorative arts to distinguish between rococo and art nouveau. We don’t live with it. We don’t know it.
Looking more carefully, though, I realized that maybe rococo and art nouveau were not the point. The influences seem to include Asia, with its yin-yang harmony between the spare and the ornate. For centuries in Japan, for example, intricate botanical images have been painted on the sleek surfaces of porcelain jars. It’s not a question of plain/modern vs. ornamental — there is always a balance between the two.
This is the decorative trend at its best: when it is paired with the sleek and modern shapes many of us still love. If we are disciplined we can allow a few winding vines to invade our homes. Little by little, a garden may grow, and who knows what our homes will look like 20 years from now. I don’t know about you, but I’m eager to be seduced by some something dangerous, mysterious, and lovely.