A lot has changed in the design and architecture world since Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime in 1908. For almost three quarters of the last century most architects have joined forces to remove any type of décor from building facades, interiors, furniture and objects. The idea of ornament became synonymous for futility, waste and meaningless effort.
The attack was most of all a political one: a war between useless feminine decoration, built by starving craftsmen for the enjoyment of a few rich aristocrats, and a masculine abstraction of forms stripped down to the purest essential elements, only the ones necessary to guarantee the most tangible functions.
It wasn't until the mid sixties that a group of young architects, probably inspired by the work of Andy Warhol, started to reintroduce into the design world the forbidden language of decoration that we see today everywhere. The new germ grew slowly through the seventies and exploded in the eighties and beyond. What had changed was not only the political scene but mainly the technology through which the artifacts were produced. Computer controlled machines started to appear and quickly became the norm in many factories around the world; TV and mass media became the most important vehicle of mass information, while fashion and clothing started their transformation to become what they are today: the most effective way to communicate identities such as social class, ethnicity, groups and sexuality.
The objects (from the industrial products to fashion and architecture) quickly started to gain back their lost essence to carry new and diverse meanings: they started telling other stories, other dreams, other anxieties.
In the last few years technology has not only progressed but it has also become accessible to anyone: we can now produce our own décor at home with a simple personal computer or just from an online website that allows for customization. The same change after all had already happened in the music and video industry with the advent of mp3/mpeg compression, audio/video editing software etc. There is no need for an expensive production company and no obstacles from the establishment. We can create wallpapers, vinyl stickers or decals. Soon enough we will be able to create and print 3d objects directly from our laptop or mobile phone. Wallpaper has become popular again and the Protestant/Modernist notion that pleasure and therefore decoration are sins has been subverted.
Ornament is pushed to an extreme, even beyond the point where function, at least in the strict sense of the term (isn't pleasure one as well?), is eaten away by the crust of flowers, patterns and digital images. These objects are probably defining new functions, where beauty and hedonism stand above everything else.
Décor has become our window into society. Thousands of possible visions of the world, uncensored, uncut, like little paper boats left on the lake and floating to an unknown destiny: they are carrying with them the essence of our time, one defined by quantity more than quality.
Designers are completely freed from the dispute, maybe also because the debate has moved to other areas and the answers to find are of different nature. The field of exploration is not in the décor itself, that today is considered au pair with all the other design tools, but in the search for a sustainable production process, or in the balance between this necessity and the constant demand for new and unique products.
In the work we do in the Studio we use décor when it is necessary while we keep the space as simple as possible if that's the best way to communicate the message we are presenting. We are not interested in ornament itself, we are interested in communication and all the tools we have handy to better convey the essence of our client's brand.
In general I think there two different approaches to décor today and in the Studio we use both of them.
The first one is probably also the oldest one: a bi-dimensional decoration applied on the surface of an object like a wallpaper. This process transforms a geometric object (abstract, at least in the way it was intended by the modernists) into something that has a tight connection to culture. The surface becomes something not to be “read by minds anymore, but with your cock, your stomach, your tongue, your eyes, your ears, your senses”1.
The Kensiegirl showroom, for instance, is a highly decorated space: it has a series of Tord Boontje lamps, a water-jet cut floral pattern on the walls and a reception desk made of a series of individually cut pieces of plexiglass. It is a double homage: on one side to the Italian group Alchimia that, under Mendini's leadership, explored new path in design, decoration and communication in the seventies; on the other side to the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, designed by Alberti and completed in 1470. In the showroom our décor is applied on the surface of the walls or on the furniture. It is like a skin, a very intense and powerful one.
Another project that was conceived with the same approach is the design of the BCBG showroom in New York. In this case the space is a long corridor that needed to be visually enlarged. We placed a mirror on the entire surface of one of the walls but we covered it with a perforated vinyl sticker to maintain a sense of tri-dimensionality to the space. The perforation is the décor itself.
The Hirshleifer's shoe store is a very clean project, inspired by the work of minimalist artists such as Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt or Frank Stella, with a light sculpture that winks at a fifties installation by Fontana at the Triennale in Milan. Décor is limited to one lacquer panel, engraved with a white on white CNC pattern that recalls the neon sculpture.
The second approach is the direct connection between the structure and the décor itself; in other words it's the structure that doubles itself as décor (CCTV by OMA, Prada by Herzog & DeMeuron, Palazzo dello Sport by Nervi etc).
Following this route is the design of the Shoebox concept store, conceived as a board where a series of panels (like pixels on a screen) can be arranged to produce an unlimited number of different patterns. The panels have different colors, materials and functions: lacquer finish, fabric and linoleum are the ingredients that can be mixed to produce different effects. In this case the décor is not applied on the surface like a wallpaper but it's part of the fixtures themselves. The specific layout of the fixtures makes the decoration.
Regardless of the way we use décor, a moral question remains in my opinion to make the difference between the myriad of objects produced today, especially thinking of the enormous quantity of cheap products that we buy and produce daily. The design of an object, regardless of its shape, size or function, has the moral responsibility to discover new areas of our existence; it has the moral responsibility to tell us new stories or open new paths for our society. It doesn't matter if the areas to be discovered are strictly personal, religious, political, frivolous or profound. If the object doesn't add anything to the conquest of being it only serves the purpose of polluting the environment and do not participate in what I consider the most important effort of human kind: the process of self discovery.