The Grammar of Ornament

The Grammar of Ornament

From the universal testimony of travelers it would appear, that there is scarcely a people, in however early stage of civilisation, with whom the desire to ornament is not a strong instinct. Man’s earliest ambition is to create . . . to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament

While we may often note that current society is changing at a breakneck speed, we do have to take note that this has happened before. Arguably, the 19th Century beats us at our own game on the fundamental-change level.

The 19th century was an era of rapidly accelerating scientific discovery and invention, with significant developments in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity, and metallurgy that laid the groundwork for the technological advances of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and spread to continental Europe, North America, and Japan. The Victorian era was notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines, as well as strict social norms regarding modesty and gender roles.

The 19th century was characterized by vast social upheaval. Slavery was abolished in much of Europe and the Americas. The First Industrial Revolution, though it began in the late 18th century, expanding beyond its British homeland for the first time during this century, particularly remaking the economies and societies of the Low Countries, the RhinelandNorthern Italy, and the Northeastern United States. A few decades later, the Second Industrial Revolution led to ever more massive urbanization and much higher levels of productivity, profit, and prosperity, a pattern that continued into the 20th century.

The first electronics appeared in the 19th century, with the introduction of the electric relay in 1835, the telegraph and its Morse code protocol in 1837, the first telephone call in 1876,[2] and the first functional light bulb in 1878.[3] Society rapidly urbanized, bringing populations increasingly together into smaller spaces. The first notes of globalization brought influences from around the world to the same table, with varying results. From a Western perspective, the new cultures were ripe to be harvested. The Eastern-perspective, it presented new threats and cultural influence without precedent. The world, in fact, was becoming smaller.

The increasingly urbanization of Europe and the United States brought about new challenges to traditional aesthetics and behaviors. How does one distinguish oneself from a sea of common faces? What importance does a dwelling have and how does it become a home? An ever-evolving social hierarchy demanded that new styles, techniques and designs be invented — and quickly.

the Emergence of Decorative Arts

Definitions from Oxford Languages · Learn more

dec·o·ra·tive arts

/ˌdek(ə)rədiv ˈärts,ˌdekəˌrādiv ˈärts/


plural noun: decorative arts; noun: decorative art

  1. the arts concerned with the production of high-quality objects that are both useful and beautiful.

Ceramics, glassware, basketry, jewelry, metalware, furniture, textiles, clothing, and other such goods are the objects most commonly associated with the decorative arts. Many decorative arts, such as basketry or pottery, are also commonly considered to be craft, but the definitions of both terms are arbitrary.

The term “decorative arts” is not meant to be derogative. It was popular in the 70s to dismiss this as a “lesser” art and thankfully, we’ve decided collectively to rather group all functional art under the term “design.” The artists we discuss in our Fine Arts Collection are very much masters of fine art as well as exquisite craftspeople. I argue that decorative arts are actually more democratic and open to including fine art in our everyday life.

And then there’s “retro.” We constantly revisit previous eras to gain inspiration for our own, modern times. Likewise, The Victorian era is known for its interpretation and eclectic revival of historic styles mixed with the introduction of Asian and Middle Eastern influences in furniture, fittings, and interior decoration. The Arts and Crafts movement, the aesthetic movementAnglo-Japanese style, and Art Nouveau style have their beginnings in the late Victorian era and gothic period.

I’m specifically interested in a handful of artists who made a thoughtful, meaningful jump to bring arts to bear weight on everyday existence. We’ve talked about Racinet. And Morris. There are several dozen others including, Tiffany, Lalique, Tamara de Lempicka, Erté (a great article re: “the top 10” is here, click on it!) are among the most notable.

Owen Jones

(adapted from: Cracking the Universal Code of Beauty: Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament by Femke Speelberg, Curator of Historic Ornament, Design, and Architecture Department of Drawings and Prints; and Robyn Fleming, Museum Librarian, Interlibrary Services and Digital Initiatives, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Met.)

In the opening chapter to his seminal work The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones stresses the fact that one of the universal qualities among humankind is the desire to make beautiful things. To illustrate this point, he uses the somewhat macabre example of a severed preserved head of a Maori warrior (mokomokai), then thought to be a woman, which was covered in an elegant pattern of facial tattoos. He admired it particularly for the harmonious way in which the responsible artist had married the tattooed lines with the natural shapes of the human face. Rather than concluding that ornament belongs purely to the primitive, as others would argue later, Jones realized through his confrontation with this ethnological specimen that the Maori possessed an innate understanding of beauty that was alien to modern Western society.

While Jones’s ideas slowly took root in art education over the following decades, which in turn influenced the development of new artistic movements such as Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau, The Grammar of Ornament did not bring about a direct change in artistic practice. In fact, as Jones himself anticipated, we often find patterns and motifs from the book copied and applied to objects and interiors dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Grammar was celebrated first and foremost for its outstanding folio-sized color lithographs, which represented the latest and most sophisticated innovations in the field of printmaking. Color lithography had been in use for several decades, but because each color was printed from a separate lithographic stone, most commercial publications were printed in a limited palette of three or four colors. Since color played a crucial role in Jones’s work, he took charge of the production himself and employed assistants to work out the patterns on lithographic stones, with certain plates requiring as many as twenty distinct stones. The high quality of Jones’s color plates quickly turned the luxurious first edition of the book into a collector’s item. Their appeal greatly outlasted Jones’s intellectual arguments, which were omitted altogether in the various posthumous editions, and facsimile reproductions published in the later nineteenth and twentieth century.

As a writer, I have to include at least one reference to literature when discussing art, fine or otherwise.

While he is now seen as the epitome of wit and sophistication, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and was killed under the same Victorian culture that produced the mentioned artwork.

It is important to note that his trial (3 April 1895) indeed changed the very vocabulary he wrote in: English. Before his trial, there were homosexual acts, however one could not be homosexual. It was not a noun. It was unthinkable to call someone a “homosexual.” Certainly a “sodomite” but that’s a different word altogether. Your identity was not in question, your acts were. That changed from an adjective to a noun due to his trial.

In 2017, Wilde was among an estimated 50,000 men who were pardoned for homosexual acts that were no longer considered offences under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967). The 2017 Act implements what is known informally as the Alan Turing law.[237]

Oscar Wilde’s Particular Aesthetic

Chief among the literary practitioners of decorative aestheticism was Oscar Wilde, who advocated Victorian decorative individualism in speech, fiction, and essay-form.[2] Wilde’s notion of cultural enlightenment through visual cues echoes that of Alexander von Humboldt[3] who maintained that imagination was not the Romantic figment of scarcity and mystery but rather something anyone could begin to develop with other methods, including organic elements in pteridomania.[4]

By changing one’s immediate dwelling quarters, one changed one’s mind as well;[5] Wilde believed that the way forward in cosmopolitanism began with as a means eclipse the societally mundane, and that such guidance would be found not in books or classrooms, but through a lived Platonic epistemology.[6] An aesthetic shift in the home’s Victorian decorative arts reached its highest outcome in the literal transformation of the individual into cosmopolitan, as Wilde was regarded and noted among others in his tour of America.[7]

For Wilde, however, the inner meaning of Victorian decorative arts is fourfold: one must first reconstruct one’s inside so as to grasp what is outside in terms of both living quarters and mind, whilst hearkening back to von Humboldt on the way to Plato so as to be immersed in contemporaneous cosmopolitanism, thereby in the ideal state becoming oneself admirably aesthetical.

the ART of INDIA

the ART of INDIA

an overview of the ART of INDIA >

Indian art consists of a variety of art forms, including paintingsculpturepottery, and textile arts such as woven silk. Geographically, it spans the entire Indian subcontinent, including what is now IndiaPakistanBangladeshSri LankaNepal, and at times eastern Afghanistan. A strong sense of design is characteristic of Indian art and can be observed in its modern and traditional forms.

The origin of Indian art can be traced to prehistoric settlements in the 3rd millennium BCE. On its way to modern times, Indian art has had cultural influences, as well as religious influences such as HinduismBuddhismJainismSikhism and Islam. In spite of this complex mixture of religious traditions, generally, the prevailing artistic style at any time and place has been shared by the major religious groups.

In historic art, sculpture in stone and metal, mainly religious, has survived the Indian climate better than other media and provides most of the best remains. Many of the most important ancient finds that are not in carved stone come from the surrounding, drier regions rather than India itself. Indian funeral and philosophic traditions exclude grave goods, which is the main source of ancient art in other cultures.

Indian artist styles historically followed Indian religions out of the subcontinent, having an especially large influence in TibetSouth East Asia and China. Indian art has itself received influences at times, especially from Central Asia and Iran, and Europe.


Artist & Author: Paul Klee

Artist & Author: Paul Klee

Paul Klee (German: [paʊ̯l ˈkleː]; 18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss-born German artist. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionismcubism, and surrealism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci‘s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.[1][2][3] He and his colleague, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture in Germany. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.

Klee was at the peak of his creative output. His Ad Parnassum (1932) is considered his masterpiece and the best example of his pointillist style; it is also one of his largest, most finely worked paintings.[53][54] He produced nearly 500 works in 1933 during his last year in Germany.[55] However, in 1933, Klee began experiencing the symptoms of what was diagnosed as scleroderma after his death. The progression of his fatal disease, which made swallowing very difficult, can be followed through the art he created in his last years. His output in 1936 was only 25 pictures. In the later 1930s, his health recovered somewhat and he was encouraged by a visit from Kandinsky and Picasso.[56] Klee’s simpler and larger designs enabled him to keep up his output in his final years, and in 1939 he created over 1,200 works, a career high for one year.[57] He used heavier lines and mainly geometric forms with fewer but larger blocks of color. His varied color palettes, some with bright colors and others somber, perhaps reflected his alternating moods of optimism and pessimism.[58] Back in Germany in 1937, seventeen of Klee’s pictures were included in an exhibition of “Degenerate art” and 102 of his works in public collections were seized by the Nazis.[59]

Klee has been variously associated with ExpressionismCubismFuturismSurrealism, and Abstraction, but his pictures are difficult to classify. He generally worked in isolation from his peers, and interpreted new art trends in his own way. He was inventive in his methods and technique. Klee worked in many different media—oil paintwatercolorinkpasteletching, and others. He often combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint.[65] Klee employed spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as oil with watercolor, watercolor with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.[66]

Source: Wikipedia

Artist: Eugène Séguy & the pochoir method

Artist: Eugène Séguy & the pochoir method

Emile-Allain Séguy, professionally known as E.A. Séguy, was a French designer during the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements of the 1920s. He primarily created patterns and textiles inspired by the natural world. Because of his particular fascination with insects, he has been confused with Eugene Séguy, a French entomologist active during the same time period. However, it is Emile-Allain who created the popular Papillons and Insectes books, filled with illustrations of vividly colored butterflies and insects made using the pochoir—French for “stencil”—technique.

Simply stated, pochoir is the French word for stencil.  In the 1920’s and 30’s Art Deco era, the color  application process of the stencil was rejuvenated by the French, bringing color illustration processes for books and prints to new glorious heights.  This interest in exploring the stencil process came in reaction to the proliferation of machine printing and the poor quality of color reproductions in publishing.  With pochoir printing, the hand application of layers of pigment created dazzling effects that the camera or printing press could never replicate.  Earlier stencil works, typically used for decorative surface ornament were quite primitive, with applied color areas outlined by the supporting cutout framework.  New experimental techniques in pochoir refined the process using multiple layers of color applications for a single print.   Pochoir printing was also easily combined with images made by lithography, woodcut, wood engraving, line drawings, or etchings, thus turning a decorative technique into fine art.  Jean Saudé was one of the foremost artists to explore and promote pochoir techniques and his treatise, Traité d’Enluminure d’Art au Pochoir, published in 1925 did much to further this art form.

POCHOIR: technique

pochoir costume designs by Sonia Delaunay

With pochoir, a hand painted fashion plate, decorative or interior design, or illustration to be duplicated was carefully analyzed to determine each color layer.  Often, but not always, an outline of the image was printed as a black and white lithograph and served as a base layer, especially in the design and fashion portfolios.  In many interior illustrations, a line drawing or even a half-tone photograph was lithographed as the base layer.  Each succeeding layer of color was then printed over the black and white litho layer.  Depending on how intense the lithograph layer was, it would either be incorporated fully in the final image or be invisible and serve only as a guide to the image layout.  

Separate stencils were cut, sometimes in thin sheets of copper, zinc, or aluminum, for every color component.  Later stencil materials were made of celluloid or plastic and contemporary stencil materials are made of coated paper or acetate.  Each successive color layer, using watercolor or gouache, was applied to the stencil with a brush called a pompon.  Pigment on the brush could not be thick or runny, as paint could easily slide underneath the stencil and change the shape of the image. Therefore, it was necessary to really blot the pigment on the brush before applying it to the stencil and in the case of watercolor images, this was even more critical. Skilled printers could achieve incredibly subtle details using gradation and stippling, spattering or even simply drawing additional details with a small brush on the final layer.  Sometimes as many as 100 stencils were used to recreate a single image, and the resulting print was surprisingly rich and detailed.  

Entirely non mechanised, pochoir was both an intensive and highly luxurious way of producing images, one which suited perfectly the elegance and extravagance of the Art Nouveau and Deco fashion journals that were the source of its enormous popularity from the early 1900s to the glistening Jazz age. Artist-cum-designers, such as George Barbier and Sonia Delaunay, published their costume and textile designs in rich, luminescent pochoir folios, lending a lavish air of the haute couture to each new illustration, while everyone from bespoke furniture and wallpaper producers to high-end architects produced catalogues of exorbitantly expensive products for their endlessly wealthy clients.

Seguy produced eleven albums of nature themed illustrations and patterns, drawing inspiration from papillons and other insects, flowers, foliage, crystals and animals. Seguy was one of few artists that successfully combined both Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles in his work. His brightly colored geometric patterns were intended to be used as inspiration for such decorative items as textiles and wallpaper.

Dover Publications reproduced Seguy’s albums in a book entitled Seguy’s Decorative Butterflies and Insects in Full Color. The publisher had this to say about Seguy: “His aim was to make available dozens of examples of extremely colorful exotic animals that had been unjustly neglected by occidental decorative artists because of their rarity in life and in illustration. It is interesting to note that Seguy, while confident that butterflies would be readily accepted, made the special plea for the other insects that were constructed like wonderful machines and were thus entitled to the same consideration as an airplane fuselage, an ocean liner or locomotive; nature was a successful industrial designer!”

Seguy’s albums were created using a unique printing process called pochoir, which was popular in France at the turn of the 20th century. Pochoir is a process that utilizes the method of applying pigment to paper through the use of stencils. First, the artist created an image in watercolor or gouache. The design was then analyzed to determine the necessary colors and number of stencils needed. The stencils could be cut from any number of materials, including copper, zinc, oiled cardboard, or celluloid. The paint was applied through the stencils by brushes or pompons. The prints were produced entirely by hand assembly line style, and each one was individually examined and approved upon completion.

While simple in concept, pochoir could become quite complex in practice, with some images requiring the use of 100 or so stencils to produce a single print. The technique was regularly used to produce plates in French fashion journals as well as being used to illustrate industrial design, textile, interiors, and architecture folios.


William Morris

William Morris

The Orchard, 1890 by William Morris. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum London

The Orchard, 1890 by William Morris. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum London

Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others, which became highly fashionable and much in demand. The firm profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, he assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co.

Morris is recognized as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain. He was best known in his lifetime as a poet, although he posthumously became better known for his designs. The William Morris Society founded in 1955 is devoted to his legacy, while multiple biographies and studies of his work have been published. Many of the buildings associated with his life are open to visitors, much of his work can be found in art galleries and museums, and his designs are still in production.

During his lifetime, Morris produced items in a range of crafts, mainly those to do with furnishing,[265] including over 600 designs for wall-paper, textiles, and embroideries, over 150 for stained glass windows, three typefaces, and around 650 borders and ornamentations for the Kelmscott Press.[249] He emphasised the idea that the design and production of an item should not be divorced from one another, and that where possible those creating items should be designer-craftsmen, thereby both designing and manufacturing their goods.[266] In the field of textile design, Morris revived a number of dead techniques,[267] and insisted on the use of good quality raw materials, almost all natural dyes, and hand processing.[268] He also observed the natural world first hand to gain a basis for his designs,[269] and insisted on learning the techniques of production prior to producing a design.[269]

Morris took up the practical art of dyeing as a necessary adjunct of his manufacturing business. He spent much of his time at Staffordshire dye works mastering the processes of that art and making experiments in the revival of old or discovery of new methods. One result of these experiments was to reinstate indigo dyeing as a practical industry and generally to renew the use of those vegetable dyes, such as the red derived from madder, which had been driven almost out of use by the anilines. Dyeing of wools, silks, and cottons was the necessary preliminary to what he had much at heart, the production of woven and printed fabrics of the highest excellence; and the period of incessant work at the dye-vat (1875–1876) was followed by a period during which he was absorbed in the production of textiles (1877–1878), and more especially in the revival of carpet-weaving as a fine art.[253][278]

Morris’s patterns for woven textiles, some of which were also machine-made under ordinary commercial conditions, included intricate double-woven furnishing fabrics in which two sets of warps and wefts are interlinked to create complex gradations of color and texture.[279] Morris long dreamed of weaving tapestries in the medieval manner, which he called “the noblest of the weaving arts.” In September 1879 he finished his first solo effort, a small piece called “Cabbage and Vine”.[280][281]



The diversity of the world’s largest national population is astounding.

122 languages, including the planet’s oldest language: Hindi. 12 religions. 1.408 billion people (est. 2021). 29 states.

This pluralism nurtures an insane wealth of art and cultural expression. Arguably, this is the creative soul of Earth. is exploring this rich history. And we’re here to share our very fundamental, simple understanding of its expressions, its forms and what it says to us now in the 21st century.

Below are some of the genres of Indian art that we gleaned from


Madhubani paintings are the most celebrated style of folk painting from India; it is a form of wall art that arises in the Mithila region of Bihar. This eye-catching art style never fails to amaze one by its beautiful illustrations on the exposed interior walls of the houses in Bihar. Madhubani paintings are a perfect example of artistic expression and evocative portrayal of culture and traditions. The designs make perfectly distinctive geometrical patterns, scenes from mythology, and symbolic images. The perfect blend of bright vibrant colours and unique patterns make Madhubani stand out from other painting styles. Katchni, Tantrik, Bharni, Khobar, and Godna are five different styles of Madhubani paintings.


Warli is a 2500-year-old traditional painting style from Maharashtra majorly practiced in Thane and Nashik region. Warli paintings illustrate the nature and social rituals of the tribe. Warli paintings also showcase day-to-day life scenarios of the local people of that particular community just like dancing, farming, hunting, praying, etc. The local women used twigs to draw such beautiful lively designs with rice paste on mud walls to convey the celebration vibes of harvests or weddings.


The Kalighat painting was discovered around the mid-19th century at Kali Temple in Calcutta. These paintings and drawings were done on paper by a community known as “patuas”. A Kalighat painting depicts scenes of everyday life and mythological deities in a captivating manner. Kalighat artists use subtle earthy Indian colours like indigo, ochre, Indian red, grey, blue and white.


Phad is a traditional Rajasthani scroll painting from India, depicting the stories of local deities, heroic figures from battlefields, adventure stories, and legendary romantic stories on horizontal cloth scrolls with the hues of red, yellow, and bright orange. Phad Painting marvellously portrays multiple stories in a single composition and beautifully maintains the aesthetics of artistic expression.

Miniature / Mughal

Miniature painting is Mughal influenced art form; this style was introduced in India during the 16th century and transformed its identity in the history of Indian art. Miniature paintings are a blend of Islamic, Persian, and Indian elements. These paintings are created using all-natural mineral colours, precious stones, conch shells, gold, and silver. Across India, the miniature style painting has developed its own identity into distinct schools of miniature paintings like Kangra, Rajasthan, Malwa, Pahadi, Mughal, Deccan, etc.


Gond paintings are a series of arranged dots and dashes developed by the Gondi tribe of central India. The tribes used to recreate some famous epic mythological tales of histories to traditional songs and rituals with rich detailing and bright colours. Traditionally, the colours used for gond paintings were derived from natural resources like cow dung, plant sap, charcoal, coloured soil, mud, flowers, leaves, etc. With growing times, the Gond art has moved beyond being a tribal art style.

Kerala Murals

Kerala mural paintings are the most unique art form and have deep spiritual roots depicting themes of Hindu mythologies, epics of the bye-gone era, classic tales of Krishna, and mystic forms of Shiva and Shakti. These traditional art styles are made up of bold strokes, and vivid colours. White, ochre-red, bluish-green, yellow-ochre, and pure colours are predominantly used in Kerala mural painting.


Patachitra is a traditional art form from Odisha. Patachitra paintings are mostly derived from mythological and religious themes done beautifully with bold, strong outlines, vibrant colors like white, red yellow, and black with decorative borders. 


Picchwai artwork was made as wall hangings behind the main deity in Krishna temples in Nathdwara which narrates the stories related to Lord Krishna. Picchwais are the most colorful and intricate work concealed with symbolism in the artistic motifs. This classified devotional art practice has passed from one generation to another and a fine example of spirituality in art.