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Is Ornament a Crime? Rethinking the Role
of Decoration in Contemporary Wood

By Cindi Strauss


David Ellsworth
Pine Pot, 2006
ponderosa pine
6 x 9 x 9.5
represented by del Mano Gallery

In 1908, the Austrian architect, designer, and theorist Adolf Loos published an incendiary treatise entitled “Ornament and Crime.” The essay equated the use of ornamentation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture and design with the destruction of culture and society. Loos felt strongly that ornament had no meaning or place within contemporary culture, even going so far as to argue that ornament actually hindered society’s progress. Specifically, Loos viewed superfluous ornament as an epidemic, one that contributed to the obsolescence of objects. He advocated for simplicity, because simple objects never go out of style and therefore would be treasured for all time.

Even today, Loos’s questioning of the role of ornamentation still resonates within the architecture and the decorative arts communities. Academics, critics, students, artists, and curators regularly discuss and debate the topic, asking themselves such questions as: What purpose does ornament serve the design of an object? Is it simply a function of style? Does ornament contribute anything meaningful to objects today?

And so on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Loos’s treatise, the opportunity to test the relevancy of his ideas in a twenty-first century context presented itself in the form of Is Ornament a Crime?: Rethinking the Role of Decoration in Contemporary Wood, a special exhibition for SOFA CHICAGO organized under the auspices of the Collectors of Wood Art. This show challenged wood artists today to create a work that responds to Loos’s advocacy of unornamented form without sacrificing creativity or technique. While the theme of the exhibition came as a shock to many in the wood community because of the preponderance of carving, inlaying, coloring, segmenting, and other surface-altering techniques of wood today, the history of the field makes clear that objects of unornamented design have always played a major role in defining style. Pioneering artists of the 1940s and 1950s, such as James Prestini, Bob Stocksdale, Emil Milan, and John May, established the aesthetic roots of wood art through their creation of geometric, functional, and sculptural forms that formally addressed wood’s natural properties. Second-generation artists such as David Ellsworth, Edward Moulthrop, Stephen Hogbin and others built upon this philosophy by introducing new techniques and sharing methods and began to shape the field themselves.


David Groth
Marinus, 2007
50.25 x 56w x 5.25
represented by del Mano Gallery

By the 1980s, wood art, while still focused largely on the vessel, had completely embraced a more freeform style. Natural edges, burls and knots, spalting, and decayed elements were celebrated rather than eradicated altogether. From there, it was a short leap for artists to incorporate color and all-over texture in their work as well as to introduce narrative and figurative forms. Some artists pushed the boundaries of acceptability even further by adding alternative materials to their compositions. For a field whose basic premise is subtractive, rather than additive, the swing of the pendulum so far in the direction of a “more is better” style was shocking indeed. As John Perrault said in a recent written exhibition review, “Am I alone in suspecting a kind of wood rococo—a lessening of formal and therefore expressive standards?”1

Is Ornament a Crime? is a reaction to the recent predominance of this type of turned and sculptural wood. In response to the call for entries, over forty artists submitted pieces for consideration, sixteen of which were accepted into the show. The final group is comprised of both turners and sculptors and features work by Christian Burchard, Hunt Clark, David Ellsworth, Liam Flynn, David Groth, Robyn Horn, Tex Isham, Ron Kent, Stoney Lamar, Harry Politt, Norm Sartorius, Betty Scarpino, Steve Sinner, Holly Tornheim, and Joël Urruty. Many of these artists already prioritized form without added decoration. For others, the challenge of the exhibition theme provided the impetus to stretch in a new direction.


Joël Urruty
Swan Lady in Dark Mahogany, 2010
mahogany, concrete
77 x 8 x 8
represented by del Mano Gallery

Turned vessels in the exhibition include David Ellsworth’s Pine Pot, which with its spherical ovoid shape, is a direct descendent of James Prestini’s style, symbolically honoring his concepts of pure form as well as Christian Burchard’s Multiple Offerings with its nest of simple, graduated, and open forms. On the other end of the spectrum, abstract sculpture is represented by David Groth’s monumental wall sculpture Marinus, which emphasizes the dynamic interplay of solid and void, organic curve and hard lines and Harry Pollitt’s fluid, mobius strip-based totem flows and builds upon itself. Holly Tornheim’s Unfolding Wave as well as Joël Urruty’s Swan Lady demonstrates the figurative or representational impulse.

These works as well as the pieces by the other artists underscore the fact that the range of forms and aesthetics represented in the exhibition is extraordinary. Turned vessels are displayed sideby- side with figural sculptures, architectonic works, and narrative pieces. Abstract and organic shapes play a major role as does an emphasis on fluidity and movement. Boldness, a sure handling of material, and a desire to create harmonious relationships between material, technique, and form mark each of the works. Not one of the pieces suffers from a lack of decoration.

Overall, the work in Is Ornament a Crime? asks the viewer to contemplate his or her own feelings about the role of ornament in contemporary wood, to put a stake in the ground on the subject the way Loos once did. As wood art continues to evolve aesthetically, technically, and intellectually over time, artists, critics, and observers alike should engage in this type of rigorous public discourse, regardless of what style is in vogue at the time. The success of any field depends on it. Is Ornament a Crime?: Rethinking the Role of Decoration in Contemporary Wood serves as a reminder of this and highlights the importance of diversity in wood today.

Cindi Strauss is the curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2010 special exhibit, Is Ornament a Crime? Re-Thinking the Role of Decoration in Contemporary Wood curated by Cindi Strauss and presented by Collectors of Wood Art.

1 John Perrault, “Out of the Woods,” American Craft 66, no. 5 (October/November 2006): 60.

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The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
Friday Nov. 6 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Saturday Nov. 7 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Sunday Nov. 8 Noon to 6 pm Tickets ($20)

One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.