Recently in New York City, I was noodling around the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift Store, a tempting venue of vast selection. Books from every which way were seemingly calling to me, as well as silks of all colors, unique sketching materials, decorative note cubes and beautiful jewelry. I’m certain you can imagine the kid-in-the-candy-store look I had on my face.
I came home, however, with just one item from this infinite enticement
of a store: A book nearly a century and a half old (well, when first
issued, that is); The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, a pioneering
architect and designer.
One of the most influential publications of the 19th century, this
design classic reissue is the book that inspired such renowned individuals
as William Morris, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. The text
is frequently cited as one of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s
most significant. But that isn’t what attracted me, initially,
to this tome. Indeed, I have always been a student of pattern and
precision. The cover in and of itself grabbed me by the throat,
pulling me away from a quite lovely book on the history of shoes.
Women’s shoes, of course.
Anyway . . . author Jones was not just an architect and designer,
but also a world traveler—and his observations of decorative
art in Europe and the Near East were employed to improve the “poor
quality” of Western design. Mr. Jones’ goal, then, was
to “change the Victorian habit of mixing elements from a wide
variety of sources and applying this mix indiscriminately to buildings,
graphic design and products.” To wit, he offered a manifesto
of “General Principles,” offering guidance to designers
of the future.
RELEVANT, SOUND, INTELLIGENT
There are many who could use this book. While his descriptions are
now archaic (yet charming), the book offers enduring relevance and
sound advice regarding the essential principles of good design.
His book has been painstakingly reproduced in glorious color, offering
the ornamentation of savage tribes, to Greek ornament, Chinese,
Byzantine, Italian—and more. Colors and sequences rush across
each page, tidy bursts of patterns that offer inspiration at every
His advice is sound, as set forth in his “General Principles.”
Broken down into “Propositions,” his first states that,
“The Decorative Arts should arise from, and should be properly
attendant upon, Architecture.” He then discusses fitness, proportion
and harmony of patterns, materials and colors; and finishes with
a discussion of juxtaposed colorations, tones and hues . . . all
this while accompanying his discussions with patterns that have
worked throughout the world’s history.
The book is also bolstered by the modern commentary of Iain Zaczek
(when things get just a little too hoity-toity-odd for easy deciphering),
an art historian and author whose specialty lies in 19th-century
This is a remarkable book—one certainly that should be seen
not just to admire for its full, lush drawings but also its intelligent
Kathleen Stoehr is president of Chemistry Creative, based in Minneapolis,
MN. She has more than eight years' experience covering trends, window
treatments and interior fashions, and is a former editor-in-chief
of Window Fashions magazine. Stoehr can be contacted for comments,
queries and trend information at kstoehr@chemistry