How Owen Jones put colour back into design
Art, design and architecture used to be the domain of pure white, from columns to marble sculptures. That was until British designer Owen Jones changed everything, with his focus on colours and the patterns we see in our everyday lives. Diane Dean reports on his enduring legacy. With thanks to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for this feature and audio.
What is it about human beings that makes us want to put patterns onto things: to decorate, to make the things we use look thought-about, to create motifs which mean something and give a sense of a thing’s individuality? We might say that what started all this off was the very influential 19th century architect-designer Owen Jones.
Jones had grown up in an era of Neoclassical art, and the commonly accepted impression was that it had always been white in colour—pure Classical white—despite revelations at the time that Ancient Greek buildings had, in fact, been polychrome. The Neoclassical aesthetic prompted Jones to take a look at the originals, so he took the Grand Tour.
It’s kind of ironic that the way to the future was found through a new way of viewing nature.
His visit to the Alhambra in Spain got him very interested in tiles and mosaics, and he later published his ideas about polychromy, catching the attention of Victorian artists, entrepreneurs and royalty, who were busy challenging and revitalising what was meant by the word ‘design’. It was their revitalisation which grew into the 1851 Great Exhibition, where (even though it was a collection of global arts) British manufacturing and design were promoted as the best in the world. The exhibition signalled that British design meant progress in all its forms and was the way to an improved future. Jones ‘did’ the interior of the exhibition building in a colour scheme of red, blue and yellow. It was radical and beautiful.
He went on to spread his ideas on design through articles and lectures, and published his Grammar of Ornament as a ‘collection of the “best” examples of ornament and decoration from other cultures and other periods’. The book is a catalogue of what he called known styles, such as Arabian, Turkish, Moresque and Persian, as well as a final chapter about ‘leaves and flowers from nature’, because, he said, ‘true art consists of idealising, and not copying, the forms of nature’. It’s ironic that the way to the future was found through a new way of viewing nature.
However, Jones was not content with the idea of just copying what he had seen, and he became prominent in design teaching circles because of his new way of thinking about how to look at nature for its underlying decorative principles. Jones’ vision didn’t just recycle the classical orders and older styles of history—with its values of proportion and profile contained within the orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), to be read as a modal, structural ‘language’—he envisioned an idealised natural world as an aesthetic. In the 19th century, that aesthetic became known as ‘modern’. It took off.
One of Jones’ pupils, Christopher Dresser, contributed to Jones’ Grammar of Ornament and was part of the aesthetic movement—prioritising the beautiful over the political. The movement was short-lived and consequently there are few surviving examples of it, however London’s 18 Stafford Terrace is now a museum dedicated to the style. It was fairly new in 1875 when Edward Linley Sambourne, the illustrator of Punch magazine, moved in. Who would have thought that nature could have got that far?
Hear Brianna Pike and Anna Harves from Six Hands talk about how they design textiles for the season—and for the zeitgeist.
Contemporary designers of textiles combine hand-drawn elements and technological know-how to get their ‘look’. Because of this technology, designs can be produced to tie-in with a zeitgeist or a season. A design might start off as a motif seen in a tree branch on a walk to work, but it then gets combined on a computerised drawing board with photographs from other walks, further drawings and a variety of colour schemes. Once a colour scheme has been chosen, it goes to either a very large ‘desk jet’-type printer or is pushed through the silkscreen, and then onto the textiles or wallpaper which decorate our homes.
The point, though, remains: designers have to be aware of absolutely everything around them. Any motif or pattern is full of potential, so they need eyes which see all colours, in every direction, and sometimes around corners as well. A far cry from classical white columns.
By Design looks at the places and things we imagine, build, use and occupy, explaining how creative ideas take tangible form through the design process.
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