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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Casual Decoration of Objects Before the 1930's


The Casual Decoration of Objects Before the 1930's 4The volcabulary of ornament contains many different elements of design, all of which have been used at one time or another to decorate objects. The most obvious are the basic ogee and cove moldings we find on furniture and architectural items going back centuries. Other bits of that vocabulary include Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns which date back to Roman and Greek times. We don't call those elements "classic" without cause.
The Tudor Rose is another classic bit of decoration dating from at least the 16th century and the Tudor Dynasty (1485 - 1603) - Henry VII - Elizabeth I. The photo below is of a tudor rose I carved following instructions in E. J. Tangermans wonderful book "Whittling and Woodcarving". I just did the one but the design is a standard decoration that you routinely see in rows and rows all over Tudor and Neo-Tudor era buildings.The Casual Decoration of Objects Before the 1930's 5.

Up until the 1920's when architecture became more about the overall silhouette of a building (IE the scale model of the building could impress a client) than the details (the things that catch our eye on a daily basis) buildings and furniture were covered in all sorts of decoration. Below you have a picture of a random older school building with really wonderful carved scrollwork at the entrance.

The Casual Decoration of Objects Before the 1930's 6So here I am, on my way to the Museum of the City of New York ( see the blog I wrote about that) and I am standing in the IRT Union Square station - build 1904 - and I noticed that in a cast lintel supporting a staircase we have a modified Tudor Rose (top picture). There is absolutely no reason for the rose to be there. You can even say that the decoration is inconsistent with the surrounding area, but them 1904 station builders could not resist. The detail is cast in, so it doesn't cost much to do. It is an exposed surface, so why the heck not decorate it. And what we end up with is a late Victorian subway station with their take on a sixteenth century design element. And if that's not cool I don't know what is!
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I believe with the advent of cheap 3d printing and CNC, decoration will be making a comeback soon, and I'm looking forward to this even if there will be ugly/awkward designs introduced in the period. The problem with clean lines modern, is that when it's done poorly, it looks terribly plain and so much of today's modern buildings fit this bill.
01/06/2016 Bob Groh
Really enjoy your comments and observations about design in the ordinary world that surrounds us. A good reminder to all of us to 'look up' every once and a while and see and notice things. Thanks for the gentle dig in the ribs.
01/06/2016 Mark Smith
Or maybe it's to represent a spinning wheel, which would make it fit the setting and be a quite 'modern' decoration. Then it wouldn't be 'random' but purposeful, placed over the door that ushers people into the 'world' of rapidly spinning wheels that would speed them across the city.
01/06/2016 ken De Witt
I have been meaning to write a note for months to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. Having grown up in Bushwick Brooklyn in the 40's and fifty's
there is a lot to relate to. Moved to Richmond Hill Queens in the mid 60's and Manhattan in the early 70's.

Love the stories of your trips to so many places that I have been and enjoyed with less than your careful eye.
Please keep them coming and someday I will buy more than the holdfasts from you.

We need more people to bring the craft to others.
01/06/2016 Charlie Keller
I was a blacksmith. Commenting on the frequency of twists, curls and what not in iron work a colleague said "Well it's hot, why not do something with it?"
01/07/2016 Tom walton
Gotta wonder about effect of large scale wars on decorative arts - think of furniture before and then after Napoleon. Skilled craftsmen/future apprentices become cannon fodder/fertilizer, fortunes are lost, priorities change
01/10/2016 Johann von Katzenelnbogen
During the 2nd quarter of the century (1920's through 1950's) there was a lot of chatter about "form follows function", versus "function follows form" which was most "modern" designer's concept of the type of designs done in previous century. As an artist and designer, I have always asked the question, "why can function not HAVE form?" I feel that the square generic objects with no decoration are incredibly dull, or down right horrible. I also seem to have a case of "horror Vacuii" which is an art term for detesting blank, undecorated space. Anyway, thanks for sharing what you do.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.