Ornamentation – When, Where and How to Use It
When ornament appears in the limited zones of construction, it produces an expression of metamorphosis. The “honest” element is momentarily disrupted and transformed into something else, such as the leafage upon a Corinthian capital, and thus the phenomenon of transformation displaces the pure expression of construction. —Kent Bloomer, The Nature of Ornament
Even though I am a huge fan of ornamentation, I have been in plenty of “new” homes where it has been used incorrectly. I emphasize “new” because in older homes it was designed as part of the general decor, whereas today it is added. In many cases it is a problem with the quality of the ornament, the composition of the design or lack of composition or inappropriate placement like a single cartouche in a large space with no other embellishment.
One of the reasons I am addicted to classical design is that it is classy! Classical interiors are beautiful regardless of what you do with furnishings and colors. To take a room and create a classical backdrop there are some guidelines which will ensure a classy result. So in answer to when to use classical ornamentation my answer is whenever you want to create an elegant backdrop, or enhance a focal point of a room, such as a fireplace. This standard builder fireplace in this home was the same in the living room and dining room and the client wanted to add some character to them. The molding throughout the house was white so we retained the continuity of that and added painted composition ornament with a gemstone cabochon in the middle. We carefully selected the ornament to complement the style of the home because ornament is all about the home more so than the decor. However, we did find a wreath for the base blocks which was perfect with the fireplace andirons.
When you have lots of drywall. Since I have blogged a lot about wall panels I won’t go into detail about what a great addition panels are to all rooms, other than to restate what a great solution they are to large expanses of drywall. They are perfect for two-story foyers and great rooms.
When you want to distinguish your home from other homes of similar architecture and price in a neighborhood, ornamentation becomes a feature that will set your home apart. It adds value just like a great kitchen and bathroom.
When you want to create an impressive entrance either inside or outside. Here we have added ornament to the exterior entrance.
When you want to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary. This pedestal was a flea market find which has been made into a unique piece with a faux marble finish and composition ornament.
Or when you want to create the look of custom cabinets in a master bath, study, kitchen or closet. Here are some doors….
In this closet we added mirrors to the doors and ornament.
Here we have added plaster ornament to the top of the built-ins, compo on the cabinet doors and fireplace.
Where to install ornament. Steven Semes in his book The Architecture of the Classical Interior, states the task of the designer is to take the ordinary elements of building construction and render them extraordinary. The list of elements typically seen in a classical room begins with the bounding surfaces of the space: ceiling, floor and walls. Next come the openings in these surfaces, such as doors and windows, or objects impressed on them, such as fireplaces and stairs.
Composition (literally, “putting it together”) is the essence of classical design because it coordinates everything. What unifies all the elements are the arrangement and scale. For purposes of our subject, the use of ornamentation, we are interpreting this as it relates to the choices of ornament. The terms ornament and decoration are frequently used interchangeably, however we distinguish between embellishment that is applied to architectural elements in the form of pattern as ornament and that which takes the form of pictorial imagery as decoration. The role of ornament in classical design is precise: It is the partner of proportion in the development of the form. Proportions are made visible by the subdivision of surfaces and elements, and the boundaries between these subdivisions must be made explicit. As the subdivision continues at smaller scales, we enter the realm of ornament.
To continue to answer where to use ornament having identified the elements we can begin with embellishing the main lines and divisions of the surfaces using molding and panels. The quality and proper positioning of the ornament is as important to the beauty of a room as the room’s overall composition. Therefore symmetry is essential in determining the composition and layout of panels. The style of ornament itself should be appropriate to its location. Good ornament suits its location rather than detracting from the underlying form. In selecting ornament there are categories or motifs: human, animal, botanical, geometrical and manmade such as musical instruments . Having selected your themes, attention should be placed on the scale of the ornament making sure that the pieces work together and that the direction of the design in a linear pattern runs in one direction.
How to use ornament. The historical name for ornament is “composition ornament”. Today it is commonly referred to as “compo”. Compo is a little known, special form of relief ornament used in interior architectural decoration, and the decoration of furniture, fireplaces, ceilings and wall decor. The formula and technique for making the dough that makes compo is carefully guarded. The dough must have some essential characteristics: when lightly steamed, the ornament becomes gently pliable and is self-bonding. It has the feel of a firm clay that has set, but can easily be cut and carved with a fine, short-bladed knife. Once compo goes through its hardening process in a month or so it takes on a rock-like hardness that makes it more durable than wood. Any compo can be glued using regular white glue. Unless your project involves the need to curve or layer ornament or attach it to raw wood, we recommend just using white glue or adhesive caulk. Compo is available from Decorators Supply and JP Weaver Co.
Plaster Ornament is traditionally used for decorative ceilings and wall panels. Decorators Supply offers a line of plaster ornament as well as their compo ornament. It can be installed using adhesive caulk. For an easier installation look at the Beaux-Artes panels which are cast in resin, pre-finished and easy to install.
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