Functionality, clarity and rationality reign supreme in contemporary design. The Bauhaus casts a long shadow and analysis of function, distillation of meaning and removal of the inessential gives us the calm spaces, ordered structures and clear interfaces that we need to navigate our complex modern lives. It could be argued that decoration is anti-design. Style is inevitable, but ‘decoration’ is just for cakes and wallpaper, no?
There are areas of design where indulgent visual richness remains desirable and appropriate, a signifier of value and/or emotion. Decoration blooms sporadically now – our rapid cultural turnover often rendering it ‘tired’ before it can establish itself. It may not be a dirty word any more but beyond the confines of fashion and interior design, decoration often coexists uneasily with cool minimalism and rational typography. Are we are in danger of losing the art of decoration?
The packaging design for St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (Sandstrom Partners, 2008) suggests there is no danger of that. This elegantly detailed bottle and cap has four embossed, foiled and die-cut labels with specially-drawn letterforms and carefully considered, evocative typography. ‘Parisian life in a bottle’ as one of its labels suggests. The website supports the brand with equal attention to Belle Époque period detail. Despite the rumoured quality of the contents I can’t quite bring myself to defile my own bottle by actually opening it. No doubt the packaging costs significantly more than the actual product within, and there is nothing ‘rational’ about this design, but it is a beautiful piece of work. Mere imitation or pastiche? – surely the care and quality of execution raises this above that suggestion.
St. Germain does not represent a decorative movement – it defies the more noticeable drinks sector trend favouring lurid and crass eye-grabbing design horrors – interest in decoration ebbs and flows. Back in the 1960s US-inspired ‘corporate design’ was seized on to demonstrate business ownership and centralised management. When this trend reached the UK brewery sector, swathes of Victorian and Edwardian pub decoration and signage were destroyed or cloaked in garish plastic fascia in then-modish dark blues, reds, yellows and browns. For a while this trend seemed a cheerful sign of a bright new future, but soon the plastic cracked, weathered and faded, eventually conveying only cheap and nasty (in many cases accurately reflecting the experience within). Years later, breweries hoping to encourage the female half of the population into their grim and gloomy establishments decided the plastic years were over. Companies like Sedley Place Design rediscovered the visual skills of the past, implementing more subtle traditional (and local) visual identities. Decoration of deeper quality appeared again… only to then fade away once more in the era of The Brand.
The past was rarely as it now seems and our decorative traditions have always been about recycling, then as now. Only the pace has changed. In a museum recently I was struck by the familiarity of Roman decorative motifs – how infrequently western culture seems to have genuinely created new decorative traditions. What we think of as ‘Victorian style’ was largely synthesised from the cultural booty of Empire: Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Arabic styles sampled at will (see Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament of 1856). The Victorians did create an exuberantly rich (if borrowed) decorative visual culture, but only the Arts and Crafts Movement seemed to develop that with innovative intent.
The speed of change now is such that repurposing past style is usually superficial. We have formidable computing tools to remove labour from the processes of design, yet this liberation also takes away the handcrafted element that gave older decorative traditions stability and quality. We recycle visual culture so rapidly that few trends take root long enough to develop depth/sophistication.
Amongst outbreaks of decorative design it is difficult to see a consistent trend. A positive view of the situation is that now anything is possible at any time, designers need never be in thrall to any particular received form or style – complete freedom! On the other hand, lazy pastiche and visual recycling is readily reached for as an answer (and as quickly discarded) and nothing ‘new’ is around long enough to acquire true quality. The question remains: will things ever stand still long enough for a ‘new tradition’ of decoration to emerge? Who (apart from Marion Bantjes) has the patience to take this on? Do we have the nerve – or will we bottle it?