Ornament is Now but one of the Follies


If you wish to have ornament, you must pay specifically for it, and the workman is compelled to produce ornament, as he is to produce other wares. He is compelled to pretend happiness in his work, so that the beauty produced by man’s hand, which was once a solace to his labour, has now become an extra burden to him, and ornament is now but one of the follies of useless toil, and perhaps not the least irksome of its fetters.

— William Morris, “Useful Work v. Useless Toil” (1888)

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17 Responses to Ornament is Now but one of the Follies

  1. captainjack1024 says:

    This is why mother-in-law, who makes insanely good cheesecakes in every variety imaginable, never wanted to open a baking business. When it starts being work, she won’t want to do it any more.

  2. bearkatwood says:

    I don’t know how to feel about this. I have been remodeling my shop for my own enjoyment and I have added plenty of ornamentation. It definitely runs counter to the anarchist style. I understand the objection to overly ornate work sold to the kings, but I just can’t do simple. I have a tendency to take the simple and explode it. I think my workbench is the first I have seen with barley twist legs. I am not the anti-Chris, I just like a little different look. Thanks, hope the book is a hit!

    • Stefan Rusek says:

      You are specifically exempted. I just read the article Chris quoted, and a few lines after the above quote there is this:

      “From all that has been said already it follows that labour, to be attractive, must be directed towards some obviously useful end, unless in cases where it is undertaken voluntarily by each individual as a pastime.”

      • gblogswild says:

        And don’t forget the Shaker dictum, “Do not make a thing unless it is necessary and useful. If it is necessary and useful, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.”

        I think decorating one’s own shop with intricate carvings or pasted newspapers or adult magazine clippings is a matter or taste (or lack thereof) and therefore is not really work.

    • jenohdit says:

      The tempo of cultural progress suffers through stragglers. I may be living in 1908, yet my neighbour still lives in 1900 and that one over there in 1880. It is a misfortune for a country if the cultural development of its people is spread over such a long period. The peasant from Kals lives in the twelfth century. And in the jubilee procession there were contingents from national groups which would have been thought backward even in the period of the migrations of the tribes. Happy the country that has no such stragglers and marauders! Happy America!

  3. Stefan Rusek says:

    Chris, I will admit to finding your quote completely opaque. I went and read the source, and I’m floored (and admittedly disheartened) by how present the article is 130 years later. Some of the occupations discussed have gone away and some new ones exist, but as a whole the article could have been written today

    After reading the article, I’m not entirely convinced you didn’t choose the most tricky couple of sentences just to mess with people. This quote more than any part in the article seems to point out my disconnection from 19th century Europe and working class life. It seems that understanding what Morris is saying here hinge on the words “ornament” and “compel”, and I just don’t know enough of the context to feel like I completely get what he is saying.

    All that said, the Morris article is very fantastic and thought provoking.

    • jenohdit says:

      The child is amoral. So is the Papuan, to us. The Papuan kills his enemies and eats them. He is no criminal but if a modern man kills someone and eats him, he is a criminal or a degenerate.

      The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his rudder, his oars; in short, everything he can get his hands on. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the prisoners are tattooed. Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.

    • potomacker says:

      *prescient. I think that’s what you intended.

  4. seawolfe2013 says:

    Ornamentation is in the eye of the beholder. Hand made furniture today is functional art. Ornamentation can be the grain of the wood, the exposed joints, a carving applied to the face or even gold leaf. As long as it’s well made, who am I to judge?

  5. One of the quickest ways to crush someone’s spirit is to compel them to perform work they find of no value. If you work for someone else, you will almost certainly be asked to do this. Those of us who work wood for pleasure are fortunate.

  6. ouidavincent says:

    Ellen has a furniture challenge on HGTV. The first design was a bed. The top contenders ended up being the simplest and most comfortable designs. The two losing designs were the “boldest” and most “ornamental”.
    When I read the opening chapter of the ADB, all that I could think of was Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”.

  7. nubthumb says:

    I find the most discouraging commissions come from people with less imagination. ‘Make it look like this’ (showing a picture). I most enjoy when I’m given artistic freedom or, even better, when I can bounce ideas off of a client that is open minded and we can come up with something together. I came into woodworking more from the art side. I was an artist before and it’s hard to shake that mindset. In the December Popular Woodworking, the article on Toshio Odate gave me peace with something I’ve struggled with for years, as a potter and as a woodworker. And I think William Morris is referring to the same thing.

    “A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how.”
    “Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”- Toshio Odate

    • bearkatwood says:

      I like your angle on the subject. I too like approaching my work from an artistic standpoint, rather than a utilitarian view. I like a piece to be inspirational and captivating as well as comfortable and useful.

  8. tpier says:

    Blaming the buyer for the worker’s feelings about the product he produces seems backwards to me. If the worker finds himself hating his work it is past time to find other work. If the system makes it difficult for a worker to switch to work better suited for the worker’s desires then it is time for the worker to better the system.

  9. jfkriege says:

    What is the illumination from?

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