The V&A opens first gallery devoted to the history and meaning of ornament

From rinceaux to Reeboks



In the 1840s Augustus Pugin sat on the committee which selected items for the Museum of Manufacturers, later to become the Victoria & Albert Museum. Founded to improve the lamentable standards of British manufacturing, the Museum became in itself a repository of ornament in all its manifestations. The opening in February of a new 250-square-metre gallery containing 450 items assembled to form an "Encyclopaedia of Ornament" in the words of its curator, Michael Snodin, obviously reflects a desire to return to the collection's roots. But how tangled have these roots become?

The display is to be divided into five principal sections starting with one entitled "What is ornament?" The "grazing" visitor (to use the startling verb employed in the pre-publicity material) is introduced to the general notion of ornament via a Fernet Branca ashtray and a pocket calculator whose "sheer quality of stainless steel underlines the practical functions of a calculator but it is ornamented with the pattern of the buttons". Having thus touched on the meaning and function of ornament we are then taken back to the traditional core of the subject with a discussion of Lucas van Leyden's decorative prints and their dissemination throughout Europe. One feels on safer ground here: the V&A holds the largest collection of engraved ornament of any museum, previously rivalled only by Berlin, many of whose sheets were destroyed in the last war. The immense task of cataloguing these prints is nearing completion and will soon be published under the direction of Michael Snodin.

In the present display, however, they form but one element interspersed with a wide range of other items from maiolica plates and Grotesque designs to Reebok trainers, apparently to demonstrate the application of ornamental details (it is hard to see where) onto a functional object in order to give it a symbolic significance - in this case feminine health-consciousness. What would Mr Pugin say? This seems to be the nub of the problem: the caption to Case 6 of the display states that the responsibility of the V&A in the late twentieth century is to collect objects which record the history of design, be it furniture, clothing or modes of transport. If the time is ripe for a discussion of the interaction between ornament and design including issues such as the role of ornament in post-modernist design - and given the current public level of interest in fields such as architecture and interior design - it may well be the terms of the debate need to be set out more clearly. Whether a huge assembly of items of this kind will introduce the modern visitor to these notions, "grazing" from Corinthian capitals as illustrated by Palladio to a 1929 Hunter and Palmer biscuit tin, remains to be seen.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From rinceaux to Reeboks'