Object: The Grammar of Ornament
Artist: Owen Jones
In his magnificent 1856 treatise, The Grammar of Ornament, London architect Owen Jones lays out the interlocking roles of architecture and the decorative arts.
The first of his book's 37 axioms reads, “The decorative arts arise from and should be properly attendant upon architecture.” The second declares, “Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments of the age in which it is created.”
To achieve Jones's endgame—“repose”— one has only to strive for “fitness, proportion, and harmony” through the proper use of ornament. Jones' ideas, and the 600 handetched images accompanying them, rocked the Victorian world and helped wrest people of taste from the excesses of the age. With more than 2,350 patterns, the book inspired furnishings, architectural details, and textiles. With its frontispiece twining with vines and ferns, it clearly influenced William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement as well as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
As an architect, Jones (1809–1874) is associated with iron buildings. But his real passion played out in the 1851 decoration of Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace and in The Grammar, for which he culled motifs into chromolithographic images so intricate they took five craftsmen a year to complete.
The Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture at the University of Wisconsin offers a chapter-by-chapter glimpse of motifs from such places as Egypt, ancient Greece, Pompeii, and Byzantium. An emphasis on geometry, form, and function makes the book a pioneering work of modernism for its day. The Grammar was used to teach art, design, and mathematical principles from Oxford to Stanford for more than a century. Its enduring appeal may derive from Jones' fundamental belief that ornament represents humankind's highest ambition: “[T]o create, to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.”
The price of style: A rare early edition might run $10,000 at an antiquarian bookseller such as Sotheran's in London. L'Aventurine published a paperback homage, which sells for $15.61 at Amazon.com. A CD-ROM is available for $40.