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The urge to embellish surfaces is as old as human activity. The breadth of this practice has been recorded in many different ways and times, but beginning in the mid-19th-century design publications such as Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament started to organize the historic of what he called “Ornamental Art.” He knew that a comprehensive overview of the subject was beyond the scope of any one individual so he set out a goal “to select a few of the most prominent types in certain styles closely connected to each other...” Because this publication also benefited from recent improvements in color printing, this volume is a wonderful place to begin a larger story of ornament in architecture.

The documents in the BTHL are mostly trade catalogs and often address the topic from the limited perspective of the specific material such as “ornamental metals.” There are nearly 400 documents with the word “ornamental” in the meta data and a smaller number with the word “ornament. “ Many of these documents utilize various ways to classify ornament based upon some historic connection to a motif’s origin or regional identity. Other documents just present a cornucopia of design motifs with no attempt at classification. This is particularly true of paint company catalogs that present new decorative designs and techniques. One noteworthy stencil catalog has more than 4,000 different designs.

The documents in this summary were selected because they are comprehensive in the architectural material they present, such as paint, wood, or metals. There are several noteworthy catalogs of cast ornament that could be utilized as part of a craft-based plaster finish system. The earliest of these used a cast paper/resin product that is known as “carton Pierre,” which originated in France. There were several major U.S. companies that produced cast ornament in plaster and composites, which they marketed in large publications with photographic examples of their collections. The use of stamped metal pieces that duplicate ornament generally copied designs that originated in sculpted plaster. These catalogs tell a story of ornament but also the development of labor-saving methods of embellishment and mass production.

The use of paint as an ornamental material has a particularly interesting history. Mass produced wallpaper was the preferred material for domestic interiors in the Victorian era. The use of ornamental designs in paint using stencils and mottled surfaces was promoted, as a decorative alternative to wallpaper that was both economical and “sanitary.” This conversion started with kitchens and bathrooms, where moisture and cleaning products would have the most deterioration on wallpaper. The move to a whole house with painted wall finishes ultimately happened in the twentieth century in a response to design trends and economy. In many ways, the color of the painted surface has become the “ornament” of today.

The APT Building Technology Heritage Library was created to be a comprehensive source of period trade catalogs and builder’s guides. These documents can aid in future conservation, but they also help tell the history of design. The use of ornament to distinguish a surface is an overarching story of all times. The BTHL, with its growing collection, has reached its goal of being a “modern portal to the material past. “  

The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

Owen Jones, London

This publication from 1856 is a milestone in the architectural history of ornament in both its content and the use of modern color printing. There are one hundred color plates of ornamental designs based upon a variety of criteria including geographic, time period, cultural identity and lastly, flowers and nature. What is most surprising in this effort was his admonishment to not “borrow from the past those forms of beauty which have already been used up as nauseam.” The last chapter was his effort to show a “modern style by a return to Nature for fresh inspiration.” This document is not in the BTHL collection but can be found on the Internet Archive. 

Recueil de Dessins, 1830

Recueil de dessins, 1830.

[Collection of lithographed drawings, ornaments, architecture…] 

Recueil de dessins, d'ornemens, d'architecture lithographiés : publié par Tirrart, décorateur ornemaniste, successeur de Mrs. Benoiste et Cie et de Feu Sempé : contenant tout ce qui a rapport à la décoration intérieure et extérieure des bâtimens et qui se trouvent exécutés en relief en Carton-Pierre dans ses magasins à Paris, 1830
Tirrart, Paris, France

This French catalog from 1830 is an early document of architectural ornament. The designs are executed in “Carton-Pierre,” which was a composite material made of paper pulp mixed with resin and glue and pressed into molds. The replication in molds made this material less expensive and carved ornament and the use of paper made it light weight. It was usually painted as the final finish. There are several catalogs featuring carton-pierre in the BTHL from companies in France, England and the U.S. 

Outlines of ornament, 1881

Outlines of ornament in the leading styles, 1881.

Outlines of ornament in the leading styles, 1881.

W. & G. Audsley, London, England

The subtitle tells us that these designs are “selected from executed ancient and modern works.” This publication has 62 plates of ornamental designs that illustrate designs based pattern creation rather than historic references. The pattern design categories include fret, fret diaper, interlaced, powdered, diaper, and conventional foliage.

Designs of Architectural Ornaments, 1887.

Designs of architectural ornaments, 1887.

Designs of architectural ornaments: manufactured in sheet zinc, brass or copper by Bakewell & Mullins, Kittredge Cornice and Ornament Works, Salem, Columbiana Co., Ohio, 1887

Bakewell & Mullins, Salem, OH

Three-dimensional ornament created from stamped metals is featured in this large volume, which hundred of examples ranging from sculptural figures to tiny “points.” Panels of stamped zinc ornament were suitable for exterior use. When painted in stone like colors the sheet metal cornice was a light-weight exterior ornament that replicated earlier designs in stone or wood.  

Official price list from the Foster-Munger Co., 1899

Official price list from the Foster-Munger Co., 1899.

Official price list from the Foster-Munger Co., Chicago: wholesale manufacturers: doors, blinds, glazed sash, mouldings, makers of everything in millwork, in pine and hardwoods, 1899

Foster-Munger Co., Chicago, IL

This large catalog of woodwork illustrates just about every method that can be used to produce ornamental woodwork. There are literally dozens of designs for individual wood trim and moldings or composite assemblies of doors, fireplace mantels, grilles and even furniture. There are also more than sixty plates of decorative glazing and art glass.  

Ornamental hardwood floors, 1901

Ornamental hardwood floors: parquetry, borders, strips, floor finishes, weighted brushes, 1901.

Ornamental hardwood floors: parquetry, borders, strips, floor finishes, weighted brushes: manufactured by S.C. Johnson & Son, Racine Junction, Wis, 1901

S. C. Johnson & Son, Racine, WI

Parquetry was a special technique of using inlays of various woods to create ornamental patterns. It can be found in furniture but this catalog featured various designs for patterns in wood panels made for use as flooring. The use of patterned borders was one particularly popular way to add a design accent to a wooden floor. 

ornamental decoration, 1908

A few suggestions for ornamental decoration, 1908.

A few suggestions for ornamental decoration: a collection of designs & colour schemes for painters' and decorators' work/compiled by F. Scott Mitchell, 1908

Thos. Parsons & Sons London England

This is a publication of a paint company that featured ornamental designs that could be executed with various painting methods or stencils. Some of the illustrated designs come with attribution as the design origins, such as Moorish, Assyrian, Celtic, Romanesque and Georgian.

Wheeling ceilings, 1911

Wheeling ceilings, 1911.

Wheeling ceilings: Wheeling Corrugating Co., 1911

Wheeling Corrugating Co., Wheeling WV

This “tin ceiling” catalog offered a wide range of stamped metal panel ceiling, classified by their design origins - Greek, Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo, Empire, Colonial, Oriental, Art Nouveau, and Modern. However, the greatest number of patterns were simply called “panels,” with no reference to style origins. 

Acme quality decorators' system, 1914

Acme quality decorators' system, 1914.

Acme quality decorators' system of artistic and sanitary wall decorations with exclusive designs for the treatment of walls and ceilings shown in colors, stencils, and stenciling materials, 1914

Acme White Lead and Color Works, Detroit, MI

This catalog featured painted decoration, mostly in floral motifs as an alternative to wallpaper. The emphasis on “sanitary” decoration is done to disparaged wallpaper as an unhealthy covering that used “germ-breeding adhesives.” The irony of our times is the use of lead paint, which we now know has its own unhealthy characteristics.  

Excelsior fresco stencils, 1924

Excelsior fresco stencils, 1924.

Excelsior fresco stencils, 1924

Geo. E. Watson Co., Chicago IL

The use of stencils to create painted ornamental patterns on walls was popular in the early 20th century and an alternative to wallpaper. This compilation of designs is massive in content with more than 4100 designs, but absent of any narrative that connects designs to stylistic origins. 

catalogue of interior moulding

Illustrated catalog of interior and exterior decorative ornament, 1925

Illustrated catalogue of interior and exterior decorative ornament of the highest quality, 1925

Fisher & Jirouch, Cleveland OH

This is one of several similar catalogs that offered plaster and composition ornament that was suitable for interior and exterior use. These catalogs generally have photographic illustrations of several different patterns of a typical building component such as a frieze or cornice. The various components of a classical column were a mainstay of this industry produced as both full columns and pilasters. 

Lighting equipment, 1930, modern art lighting

Lighting equipment, 1930

Lighting equipment: catalog no. 30, 1930

Public Service Electrical Supply Co., Baltimore MD

Electric lighting fixtures have been produced with a wide range of ornamental motifs for the housing and glass. This catalog from 1930 is particularly interesting because of the mix of fixtures with “traditional” stylistic elements as well as a great number of fixtures in a newer ‘moderne” style.


Catalog no. 5: Julius Blum & Co., 1946

Catalog no. 5: Julius Blum & Co., 1946.

Catalog no. 5: Julius Blum & Co., Inc, 1946

Julius Blum and Co., New York NY

Stock metal components for stairs, railings and architectural panels make up the majority of items in the comprehensive metalwork catalog. There are numerous examples of molding designs but generally free of any stylistic origins more typical of earlier publications. 

Armstrong linoleum, 1955

Armstrong linoleum, 1955.

Armstrong linoleum, 1955

Armstrong Cork Co., Lancaster PA

Flooring produced as both sheet goods and individual tile created an opportunity for surface designs or geometric patterns. Linoleum was often produced with a pattern simulating stone. Individual tiles could be combined for a wide range of geometric patterns. Decorative “dicut inserts” were also available to provide a visual accent to a field of tile. 


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