Defining the Term
(ad. late L. decortin-em, n. of action from decorre to DECORATE: perh. a. F. décoration (1393 in Hatzf.).) To begin to fully understand the term ‘decoration,’ it is best to look first for a definition. Consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, one returns with four definitions, all which center on a similar theme. A decoration is explained as something used to adorn or embellish, while the dictionary also gestures to more specific uses such as a badge or medallion given as a “mark for honor.” Another OED definition describes a decoration as an ornament put up temporarily, taken from an early French usage in the theatre. These definitions of decoration revolve around its special value as well as its capacity to communicate that value to its wearer and those who encounter it. Ideas of grace and honor also appear in the etymology through the words decus and decor, and in the dictionary definition relating to the realm of military awards. This suggests that the term contains more than simply an aesthetic dimension. Words that share the same root, such as decorum, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “that which is proper, suitable, seemly, befitting, becoming; fitness, propriety, congruity,” further suggest ideas of correctness for a particular setting or context, especially for persons or items of high status.

One should also be aware of nearly synonymous terms that are often used interchangeably with decoration, such as ornament and adornment, as well as more specific concepts including the word like decorative arts. Decoration can be and has been used to mean many different things. As a noun it can refer to either an entire object, such as a clock, or only the designed elements of that object, such as the clock’s gilding or woodwork. Decoration can be alternatively distilled to speaking only of the patterns or stylistic forms which adorn a given piece. Further it can be used to refer broadly to portions of practical artistic production that exist outside of the realm of fine arts. This usage is most commonly associated with the concept of decorative arts. While each use holds a unique meaning, they are all connected beneath the umbrella of the decorative.

In terms of visual arts media, decoration is typically associated with the specific category of the decorative arts, a discipline set apart from the fine arts. This distinction often rests on a notion of practicality, where those arts with a useful purpose are termed decorative, while fine art is not meant to serve any specific function. Also, terming an object decorative generally evokes within art history a notion of being inferior, pleasing or easy on the eye, and without any depth of meaning, all claims investigated and challenged by Glenn Adamson in his recent Thinking Through Craft. Art Historian Clement Greenberg, who argued for the importance of the high art-low art divide in his 1939 “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” went further in his specific criticism of the decorative in 1957, saying in an article on the artist Milton Avery, “Decoration is the specter that haunts modernist [See MODERNISM] painting [See PAINTING].” Ayn Rand, another social philosopher, viewed the base sensory appeal of the decorative arts as preventing them from a higher level of intellectual conception necessary for a good piece of art. While embellishment serves as a way to set apart mundane objects, for many theorists it does not allow them to transcend [See TRANSCEND] the boundary into true art.

However, this pervasive notion of decoration as a low form [See FORM] compared to arts such as painting [See PAINTING] or sculpture [See SCULPTURE] is a largely modern sensibility. Items today written off as decoration held a high status and significance in many cultures at differing periods, including the western world up until the Renaissance. For example, one reviewer of Adolfo Cavallo’s catalog, Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes, “Few art forms [ See FORM] have suffered so complete a reversal of critical fortune as the tapestries that, in addition to being the prized possessions of princes and prelates, were essential components of the courtly and ecclesiastical rituals they helped structure [See STRUCTURE] and celebrate.” Therefore, to question the ability of tapestries and other so-termed decorative arts to serve as spaces for conveying depth of meaning is problematic. For large periods of history, these decorative types were socially elevated mediums. The philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, discussing more broadly the social importance of decoration in his “Art and Handicraft” noted that, “for those nations among whom art flourished, everything they possessed, even the merest utensil, was a work of art and was decorated accordingly.” For Goethe, to disregard the power of decorated objects as a medium simply because of categorization is problematic.
Modern histories of the decorative have often tried to clearly trace the development of decoration, while others have attempted to examine the role it plays in social development. An architect by trade, Gottfried Semper understood the origin of ornament to rest within the material [See MATERIAL] practice [See PRACTICE] of the craftsmen of the past. Working within the constraints of their chosen craft, artisans created[] forms [See FORM] of decoration, which then spread to other art mediums. Within this argument, Semper gives a great deal of power to the notion of decoration, seeing it as an important part of human development. Art historian Alois Riegl responded to Semper’s theory in his Stifragen, where he argues for a continuous history of ornament, roughly analogous to the design definition of decoration. In his argument ornament emerged from the copying of images [See IMAGE] from everyday life. Over time, these were divorced from their naturalistic beginnings, and further developed as elements of design, patterns and forms found in objects which do not directly appear in nature. While specific to a roughly European and Middle Eastern context, he views the development of decoration as a single path, rather than a varied or culturally specific type of creation [See CREATE].

Not all thinkers have seen the importance or value of the decorative. Particularly with the dawning of the industrial era, questions of the viability or necessity of the decorative in the face of mass production emerged. A key thinker in terms of decoration was architect [See ARCHITECTURE] Adolf Loos, who wrote on the subject of decoration in his 1908 Ornament and Crime. His stance towards decoration within practical design and architecture was deeply negative. He argued that proper cultural development was prefaced on the elimination of decorative forms [See FORM] from practical objects. Loos equates decoration with primitivism, and modern enlightenment with an absence of excessive adornment. Le Corbusier was another who denounced the world of decorative arts. He was writing [See WRITING] particularly in response to the French world of Art Deco with his Decorative Art of Today. As with many of his works, Le Corbusier advocates for industrialization of the entire process [See PROCESS] of production of practical objects, as well as a utilitarianism which would serve to eliminate excess decoration. To him, like Loos, the future rested upon the industrial, and to return to primitive arts and crafts like decoration would be an irrational step backward. It would no longer make sense within the new rational culture of the modern world, a place where decoration only serves to hinder the efficiency of the machine. Corbusier writes of the goal of his ideology, “We are indeed committed to apply all our knowledge to the creation of a tool: know-how, skill, efficiency, economy, precision….our concerns are far from the personal, the arbitrary, the fantastic, the eccentric; our interest is the norm.”
Yet others viewed decoration, particularly handmade crafts, as a way to return to the more ideal and natural world. This type of thinking was taken up by a larger degree in the West through activities such as the Arts and Crafts movement. Predating both Loos and Le Courbusier, Arts and Crafts glorified the handmade and sought to return to pre-industrial modes of production. Even earlier, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his “Art and Handicraft” on the status of decoration within his emerging world of the mass-produced and for profit luxury. Using an example of a metalworker, he discusses how these newer, disposable works are pleasing, but ultimately without deep artistic value. Importantly implicit within this argument, though, is recognition of an inherent value within decoration itself. Particularly when he addresses items such as family heirlooms, Goethe finds an artistic and social value they take on when a family passes them down through time. Often handmade objects that are excluded from the realm of fine arts by their practical nature, the heirlooms’ longevity and connection to their maker allows them to accrue meaning unavailable to the throwaway objects of the budding factory system [See SYSTEM].
This debate over decorations and their proper use continues to this day. Contemporary thinkers such as Farshid Moussavi are attempting to chart a new course in regard to the question of decoration’s place particularly in regards to architecture. In her book, The Function of Ornament, she notes what she sees as a resurgence in decorative elements in buildings. She takes visual cues such as symmetry, patterning within a building’s façade, and imitation of organic structures [See STRUCTURE] as signs of this new impulse. However, she argues to view this technology driven development positively. She hopes to re-imagine [See IMAGINATION] the opposition between practicality and decoration with an idea of functional ornament. Icon Magazine writer Douglass Murphy explains it thusly: “Trying to escape the rigid opposition of form [See FORM]/function she argues for a theory of ‘affects [See AFFECT],’ basically meaning that how something looks can be examined in the same way as how well it keeps the rain out.” While understanding the debates around the value of decoration, Moussavi posits a theory such that buildings and their decorative elements can be both practical and beautiful.

Function as a Medium
Aside from debates about the abilities of decoration to function as proper art or the viability of its existence in the modern world, some theorists have attempted to understand specifically how decoration works as a medium. Georg Simmel wrote on the workings of decoration in his 1908 piece, “Adornment.” Concerned primarily with the function of adornment or decoration when worn by humans, he argues that it serves a dual function. It is both an egoistic exercise that raises the wearers self esteem by marking him as exceptional, and also beneficiary to others who are allowed a vision of the decorations. Simmel writes, “One adorns oneself for oneself, but can only do so by adornment for others.” He also speaks of decoration as being a medium which amplifies the personality of the wearer. While ornament can be a way to communicate various meanings, it often serves as a way to mark one’s status within a given society. Other authors such as Herbert C. Sanborn have looked at decoration focused upon bodily items like clothing and jewelry. Besides reiterating several of Simmel’s points, Sanborn, in his “The Function of Clothing and Bodily Ornament,” argues that some of the masking qualities of decoration serve as a lure for others. He posits that human adornment is often tied to questions of sexual desire, rather than, in the case of clothing, a way to cover shame. In this way, decoration seems to be often about individual empowerment and conveying a sense of personality.

While it is difficult to construct a full view of the many facets surrounding the term decoration, the multitude of debates and notions of ornament are a testament to the importance of this word for our society and culture. No doubt these investigations will continue on as long as humans ponder the question of media. But by even presenting some portion of this discourse[link], one can hopefully better understand decoration as a medium.
Stephen Kolb


Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007.

Curl, James Stevens.“Gottfried Semper and the Problem of Historicism.” The Architectural Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. July 2004.

“Decoration.” Entry in Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition 1989 Accessed by Oxford English Dictionary Website .

“Decorum.” Entry in Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition 1989 Accessed by Oxford English Dictionary Website

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “Art and Handicraft.” Taken from The Theory of Decorative Art. Edited by Isabelle Frank, New York: Yale University, 2000. Accessed by website, .

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1Perceptions and Judgments. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. pp. 5-22

Greenberg, Clement. “‘Milton Avery,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. pp.197-202.

Hamburger, Jeffrey. “Untitled Review of Adolfo Cavallo’s Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” In Speculum Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 402-404.

Le Corbusier. The Decorative Art of Today. Boston: MIT Press, 1987.

Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime. California: Ariadne Press, 1997.

Murphy, Douglass.“The New Ornament” in Icon Magazine Online. Accessed by website

Riegl, Alois. Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Sanborn, Herbert C. “The Function of Clothing and of Bodily Adornment.” The American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1927), pp. 1-20.

Simmel, Georg. “Adornment.” In Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications Inc., 1997: 206-11.

Torres, Louis and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2001.