The old mantra 'form follows function' has finally had its day. With decoration, ornamentation and embellishment back on the agenda, today's designers and illustrators are letting their hair down once again, as Lawrence Zeegen finds out.
The jury is still out, undecided on exactly when illustration first came into existence. Some consider early man's first marks on a cave wall, usually depicting his victories in the hunt for dinner - a dead woolly mammoth or maimed sabre-tooth tiger - to be the first attempt by man to communicate through visual language. The flipside of this argument is that the first illustrations, in the true sense, came about with the illuminated manuscript - the earliest surviving examples of which are from the period between AD400 and AD600.
Whichever side of the fence you're on, one thing is clear: the caveman didn't sit around painting long enough to over-embellish, to decorate or to add superfluous ornamentation. 30,000 to 40,000 years ago it was a straightforward graphic message he was after. Decoration and ornamentation would have to wait a while to come into vogue, but when they arrived, they did so in style.
Right at the start of the Middle Ages, early illustrators and designers had their work cut out - decorating manuscripts was never going to be a simple project. Without the magic of print, every illuminated manuscript was a one-off affair. Most were commissioned, which was a complex and costly process, normally reserved for very special books, such as an altar bible or a book of prayers. Most were produced in monasteries, but commercial scriptoria - perhaps the forerunners to today's modern design studios - started to spring up in large cities in Italy and the Netherlands and in particular in Paris. By the late 14th century a significant industry creating manuscripts existed which included agents (early examples of the illustrator's rep), who would take long-distance commissions to the artists.
Working on sheets of parchment or vellum (animal hides specially prepared for writing and cut to the appropriate size), artists worked with a range of inks, paints and dyes made from plant extracts, minerals and insects. According to pedantic historians, however, only those documents decorated with gold or silver can officially be termed illuminated manuscripts. Technicalities aside, decoration and embellishment have remained a staple right through the history of art and design. With the invention of print around 1445, radical changes in the production of books spread rapidly across Europe - many publications were illustrated with ornate woodcut illustrations for the first time. Engraving and etching were first utilised in the 16th and 17th centuries, and lithography allowed even better methods of reproduction by the end of the 18th century.
From William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement through to the Victorians' use of decorative techniques and on to the Art Nouveau movement, peaking in popularity between 1880 and 1914 - these periods typified the very best in ornamentation. Characterised by highly stylised, flowing, curvilinear designs that often incorporated floral and plant inspired motifs, Art Nouveau artists such as Alfons Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt were all influential exponents of the craft and remain an influence today.
Long live the ornate
When Modernism exploded onto the scene between 1910 and 1930, the reign of ornamentation and decoration appeared to be over. However, where there's a will there's a way, and despite having to tussle for space alongside other art movements from Expressionism to Cubism and Futurism and from Dada and Surrealism to Op and Pop, it appears that there's still room for work that captures the essence of pure decoration and ornamentation.
Carl Rush, Creative Director at Crush has produced a range of projects that have leaned towards the ornate, including Faber and Faber's recent catalogues, and album sleeve designs for Krafty Kuts. Rush has always been a big fan of the ornate. "I have collections of books I've filled with printed ephemera," he states. "You know the kind of thing - old invoices from ye olde tailor, some Mexican poster art, some 1920s and 1930s poster designs. Ornate certainly isn't new - in fact, it has only really been out of fashion for the last 15 years." Crush has certainly drawn influences from the ornate: "We want to be contemporary but classical," he offers. "We're after that classic look yet with a twist and, with many clients that have wanted the world but only had tiny budgets, a great way to make something look expensive and grand is to make it elaborate." And as if to push home the point, Rush adds, "It feels like value for money after years of Helvetica!"
Catalina Estrada, a Columbian now living and working in Barcelona, has similar sentiments to Rush. "I think it's part of a normal cycle - after surviving periods where abstraction and minimalism were king, I think it's quite normal that saturation, ornamentation and excess of decoration have come back to take revenge!" she exclaims. Estrada's work is certainly part of the attack on minimalism. A mix of the hyperreal with a dose of Technicolor and surround-sound, it blends op art, lurid pattern-making and the surreal in a Manga meets magic mushrooms kind of way. Projects for Coca-Cola and Salomon have helped ensure that Estrada is in demand with an approach to image-making that has gained in popularity. "I actually graduated in graphic design," she recalls, "but decided to study fine arts because I was tired of dealing with too many client restrictions - I came back to design through volunteer projects for foundations in Columbia helping kids with AIDS. The illustrations I created for them were the start of my own style, I guess," she explains. "I tried to put lots of light in them so that they would really grab people's attention - I've always loved colour and emotional images so I try to get a lot of both into all of the pictures that I create."
Patterns in influences
Corinna Radcliffe uses colour in inventive ways too - she started combining it with pattern in her work after finding that it was so much more exciting than using just flat colour. "Pattern adds interest," she offers. "It also adds an ambiguity and abstraction to an image and makes the viewer work a little harder in order to decipher it. I've always, in particular, had an interest in repeat pattern especially in relation to wallpaper and textiles, and that has influenced me to use it in my illustration work." Radcliffe's images are certainly ornate but equally diverse in their use of materials. "I'm always on the lookout for new things to base a pattern on," she admits. "I collect sweet wrappers, the insides of envelopes, wallpapers and I also use lots of photographic references as well as Islamic patterns, tiles patterns, decorative borders, ceiling designs, paving stones as well as patterns that occur in the natural world - wood grains, flower formations and petals." Radcliffe pauses for breath yet continues to reflect. "Oh yes, and I look at historical references too, of course, psychedelic hand-drawn patterns from 60s poster art and old tattoos as well as traditional ornamental design, stained glass windows, Victorian decorative type, African tribal artâ€¦" Radcliffe, it would appear, is certainly one busy reference hunter-gatherer.
French-born and UK-based illustrator Marine is known for her work for Design Week and Amelia's Magazine and has found herself inspired by the unusual too. "I was working on a project recently while staying with my grandma in France. I noticed a lovely shape on one of the 1970s plate that she was serving me some delicious food onâ€¦ VoilÃ !' Marine believes that ornamentation and decorative art are more than just a passing trend: "It has been around for a long time and always will be. There is a trendy aspect within the genre, seen in particular shapes and the use of certain colours I supposeâ€¦" She pauses for reflection. "But it's all about straightforward visual pleasure." And in a twist on one of Modernism's great dictates she adds, "It is simply form over function."
Nought stranger than folk
Working solely with his hands and mind - everything is produced from his imagination or directly from source material using a range of hand-crafted techniques - is illustrator Joe McLaren. "For colour work," he explains, "I'll make an image using stencils and inkpads, building blocks of colour. And for black-and-white, I'll use scraperboard or pen and ink. I'll then use Photoshop to convert to a digital format or to clean up," he states. McLaren has a collection of pottery that he draws inspiration from. "I particularly like slipware which has designs and pictures that are completed in a few seconds but which last for centuries - that's a confidence I really admireâ€¦" McLaren declares passionately. "I look at artists - Edward Bawden and Miroslav Sasek a lot - and I believe that people value the human warmth of hand-crafted decoration. I think that decoration is a really primal human impulse which can be very moving especially when it's done unselfconsciously." McLaren's work has all of the above - he works with ideas that speak quietly yet with a powerful and emotive voice. "I think generally my work references a particular kind of Czech and Polish illustration from the mid 20th century as well as vernacular folk art from all sorts of places," he says.
Peter Wilson of Rote Design trained as a fine artist in the early/mid 1990s, a time when form was expected to follow function, and he can recall that a common criticism at the time was that his work was 'too decorative'. "It wasn't something that bothered me - I didn't draw the same connection between beauty and intellect. The idea that because my work was aesthetically pleasing or seductive meant that it could not have emotional resonance or an intellectual grounding, seemed nonsense to me, and still does," says Wilson with genuine conviction in his voice. "I feel that there has been a real return in recent years to styles that are artist-driven," he adds. "Decorative and ornamental motifs have been evident for some time in fashion, interior design and advertising - it's difficult to say where it was first re-instigated!
Over in Bristol, Tom Lane of Ginger Monkey (www. gingermonkeydesign.com) agrees with Wilson. "From what I've seen," he states, "it has infiltrated nearly every facet of contemporary visual culture in one way or another and knows no bounds. I guess it's like most things concerning creativity - everything seems to go in circles."
Lane, himself, has drawn influences from many different facets but often finds himself returning to spending hours poring over pattern details in dusty old books both in Bristol's large central reference library and in many of the city's old second-hand book stores. "Lots of my work," he explains, "has been influenced by the form and composition of ancient Greek ornamental art - it's really been a case of looking and learning from my discoveries in the library."
"Often," Lane continues, as he returns to the theme of the current zeitgeist, "we see in fashion, music and art something being taken from the past by an individual or group, re-contextualised and adapted - so it becomes contemporary and admired." Cave paintings could well be next then!