The Crisis of Ornament: Evaluation and Intercultural Divergences in the Visual Arts of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries


  • Barbara von Orelli-Messerli University of Zurich Institute of Art History



ornament, architecture, applied arts, design, 19th century, Art Deco, Modernism


From the beginning of the 19th century up to the present, ornament has faced different crises because it is not an autonomous art but traditionally attached to a surface, be it architecture or applied arts. The fate of ornament has varied, according to leading theorists and critics in these fields. In 1812, Percier and Fontaine exhorted architects and artisans to use ornament with consciousness and care. Gottfried Semper could even conceive of applied arts without ornament, and his utmost concern was to show the original function of objects that they had lost over time. He wanted to clarify the purpose of an object, not only from a functional point of view, but also iconographically. Christopher Dresser, with a background as a biologist and ‘ornamentist’, was the first industrial designer to create objects without ornament, following the influence of Japanese art. The death knell apparently tolled for ornament in 1908 with Adolf Loos’ talk on Ornament and Crime. The subsequent opposition of Art Deco and Modernism was a clash of cultures, perceptible even nowadays among architects and art historians. At a certain point, as recent studies have pointed out, there was a merging of these two art movements. At present, ornament has made a comeback and been reintegrated into architecture in a new way and spirit.


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Biografia do Autor

Barbara von Orelli-Messerli, University of Zurich Institute of Art History

Barbara von Orelli-Messerli holds the title of ‘Privatdozent’ at the University of Zurich and teaches Art history with a special focus on 19th and 20th century applied arts and design. She habilitated in art history at the University of Zurich in 2007. Before, from 1998 to 2003, she was director of studies of the Kunst + Beruf post-diploma program at the University of Bern. For many years she was a research associate at the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur. Her habilitation treatise thesis was on Gottfried Semper and his designs for the applied arts.





Como Citar

ORELLI-MESSERLI, B. von. The Crisis of Ornament: Evaluation and Intercultural Divergences in the Visual Arts of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Palíndromo, Florianópolis, v. 12, n. 27, p. 011-033, 2020. DOI: 10.5965/2175234612272020011. Disponível em: Acesso em: 29 jan. 2023.



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