In the days of laborious handcrafting, before the coming of the Industrial Revolution, ornament such as carving or engraving was a hallmark of extraordinary quality. Yet with the advent of mass production in the mid-19th century, automated machinery could replicate the most elaborate decoration at nominal cost, whether for a piece of furniture or a whole house.
This literal cheapening of ornament set off a popular craze for mass-produced items encrusted with decoration — not necessarily of high quality — and also began a trend of treating an object’s decoration as separate from its functional aspects. Hence, many late Victorian items, whether clocks, couches or cast-iron stoves, are positively wriggling with superfluous ornament, blithely gleaned from a jumble of periods and slathered on like so much wedding cake frosting.
Likewise in architecture, the mania for mass-produced ornament yielded a series of increasingly ornate home styles, culminating in the frenetically decorated Queen Anne houses of the 1880s. Eventually, these bombastic designs overwhelmed even the general public’s vast appetite for gewgaws, fomenting the backlash known as the Arts and Crafts movement.
The instance of technology changing aesthetics isn’t confined to the Industrial Revolution, however. In fact, we’re in the midst of another such period today, and for many of the same reasons.
Until a generation ago, objects with complex shapes — say, lots of intersecting compound curves — were relatively difficult and expensive to design, tool and manufacture. Automobile bodies, to cite an extreme example, had to be hand-modeled in clay at full scale and their measurements painstakingly transferred to permanent dies for mass production — one reason it used to take three years to bring a restyled car onto the market. Today practically all of this work is done on a computer; and the full-sized clay model, if it’s used at all, is more often created by a digitally controlled milling machine than by human hands.
The same digital methods used to design cars are used in practically all manufacturing industries today. And inevitably, the comparative ease of creating complex forms by computer affects the design of these products — just as the ease of churning out ornament during the Industrial Revolution encouraged its rampant use and eventual overuse.
Alas, among today’s product designers, the unfettered power to create complexity seems to have brought on a corresponding terror of simple lines and clear-cut themes. Instead, objects ranging from copiers to computers to coffeemakers are loaded with gratuitous curves, bulges and distortions that contribute nothing but baffling visual chaos. On the other hand, ergonomics — design for ease of use — seems to be more neglected than ever, despite the vast computing power that could be brought to bear in its service.
For these two reasons alone, the tortured Baroque shapes of today’s digitally designed objects will probably mark another historic low point in aesthetics, just as the Victorian era’s overuse of its own technology eventually brought its products to the very pinnacle of aesthetic absurdity. Whether today’s supremely busy yet ergonomically bumbling designs will eventually rank with those of Victorian times, we’ll find out soon enough.
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