Hands Cannot Contemplate: On Ornamentation and Not Leaving Furniture Alone, Pt. I

Whenever I finish up joinery on a piece and glue everything together, I’m always tempted to call it done. You might relate. Especially if everything miraculously came together and the table or chair or whatever I’m building manages to stand unsupported without wobbling too badly, or bursting spontaneously into dark flames, I want to move on to the next project. But I don’t. Inevitably, I also look for ways to forever prolong the making process, since that’s where the fun is.

Which is why I think you should paint your furniture.

Paint your furniture the breathtaking way Aspen Golann does. Or at aspire to do so, in a way that’s yours. Or paint it to accentuate the plane marks in the folk piece you’re making—the storylines left by the labor of human hands—as Joshua demonstrated in a recent blog post.

Or, if you don’t paint it, inlay it. String it. Band it. Or, perhaps, carve it. Carve it like Mary May, or at least aspire to do so, in a way that’s yours. Bead, chamfer, mold, or round some of its elements over. Set its shellacked finish partially aflame, even, to get some mind-blowing spiderweb crinkles.

Sink a bowtie in over that crack in the piece so your table doesn’t split in half over the next few decades, but do it with a chisel and a little hag’s tooth router plane you’ve made yourself with an old Allen wrench you’ve sharpened to a wicked point, clamped in a couple blocks of wood. It’s easier than you think, and you sure don’t need a router and a plexiglass template to do this kind of thing, despite what the people at the woodworking store might tell you. Or, better yet, tinker with that bowtie shape so it looks a little different. A little weirder. A little less like a boring old hourglass. Let those modifications express something about both the world you inhabit and the skills you’re trying to forever improve, or about the people you’re making the piece for.

In general, I guess what I’m saying, is please occasionally tamper with the geometric purity of the furniture you build. Please keep fussing with it, even if you’re a Shaker Furniture Person. If you’ve got the time, why not adulterate your work, especially if it’ll broaden your skills and give you the latitude to truly make a piece your own?

Be forewarned, though, that in doing so you’re going to anchor your piece to a particular moment in time, which (according to some prominent 20th century art theorists) is a Big Problem. And—this is true—you don’t want to overdo it, since an inebriated-wedding-cake-of-a-thing like the 1732 Badminton Chest (which still holds the record for the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold) is hard to clean and plan the rest of your interior décor around:

“Ornament” might, in fact, be “a crime,” as the Austrian architect Aldolf Loos notoriously and loudly trumpeted in 1910 in his essay entitled (duh) “Ornament and Crime.”  

It’s hard to overstate the influence of Loos’ argument, as he famous threw a very irritated punch at fin de siècle and Victorian excess in art and architecture. For Loos, excessive ornamentation on a piece of furniture immediately dated it and sent it packing towards the dustbin of history, whereas “the form of the object lasts, that is to say remains tolerable, as long as the object lasts physically.”1 By focusing on shape itself, Loos wanted art to break free from the fashion of the moment (especially maximalist fashions like rococo), and hopscotch towards eternity.

In fact, along with the prevailing winds of European Modernism, in general, we might blame—or thank—Loos for a century of all kinds of artistic expression. For brutalist concrete buildings on college campuses. For IKEA furniture that looks like it’s come out of my kindergartener’s Play-Doh extruder. For some incontestably beautiful Danish modern furniture. And for loads of paintings of squares hanging in museums across the world—some (in my admittedly amateur judgment) worthy of the honor, and some less so.

As my family, along with millions of other Americans, dragged the fresh kill of an evergreen carcass into our living room a couple weeks back, though, I was, weirdly, thinking a lot about Loos. Specifically, I pictured him putting him a bare Christmas tree in a living room and peevishly refusing to decorate it. If function trumps form, what’d be the point of defiling our proud sylvan symbol? Why besmirch this beacon of rebirth and perennial hope with some glued-together popsicle sticks my daughter made in preschool? Is not the naked, resplendent form of a conifer enough? If you hate ornamentation, Christmas ornaments are forbidden, right?

Loos is easy to critique a century out from his writing, especially considering the more problematic parts of his biography and with the hindsight of history, and in part II of this post, I’ll try to situate his work—warts and all—from the vantage point of craftspeople who struggle with how and when to ornament a work today.

-Cameron Turner 

1 Adolf Loos. “Ornament and Crime.” 1908.


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