The Nature of Ornament: Chaos, Code, Cosmos


Winter 2015 and Spring 2015 quarters

Taught by

visual arts, architecture
computer studies
feminist theory, consciousness studies

Ornament struggles to serve its ancient purpose, which is to bring order and produce cosmos out of chaos.  --Bloomer, The Nature of Ornament:  Rhythm and Metamorphosis in Architecture

Why do we like some objects plain and others ornamented? Does ornament arise out of the making of the thing or is it applied afterward? What are the personal, political, and technological dimensions of ornament within different historical and cultural contexts? Are our possessions—from clothes and cars to laptops and smartphones—a form of ornament? Is thinking always mediated by, alongside,and through objects? How is our relationship to ornament changed by our ability to automate and cheaply create through new technology? From an evolutionary perspective might the neurological be ornamental and reason mere embellishment? Are the abstract, technical artifacts of mathematics and science devoid of ornament or can physical embodiment become mere ornament?

We will consider how things—plain or adorned—shape and are shaped by our mental as well as our physical landscapes. Possible sites for our investigation of the cognitive life of vibrant matter are many and diverse: beads (abacus to jewelry), classic Greek running patterns, Islamic interlaces, cursive writing and digital typography, computer-generated art, the design and representation of web pages, 3D-printed objects, pattern creation using cellular automata, Native American figure/ground relationships, Bach’s well-ordered table of musical ornaments, the poetics of Gertrude Stein , Louis Sullivan’s A System of Architectural Ornament, Rudolf Steiner’s sequenced instruction in form drawing (and its relationship to projective geometry), or Henry Goodyear’s The Grammar of the Lotus.

Each student will choose to do program creative work in two of three interrelated studios each quarter: one focused on materials, tools, and making in wood, metals, clay and plaster; one focused on computer programming using the Processing language and 3D printing; and a third focused on ornament as a creative, gendered, evolutionary and projective process for adding value to materials, tools, making, programming, and printing. Although individual studio work will diverge in addressing how forms and patterns of ornamentation arise from nature, abstract systems, and cultural imperatives, our primary assessment and evaluation practices will focus on small group projects requiring the cultivation and ornamentation of individual work by students from each of the studios each quarter.  Winter projects will center on the idea of screening – permeable surfaces and membranes that frame and modulate movements and flows.  Spring projects will address the idea of containing – multi-dimensional forms and modules that address boundaries between inside and outside.  Studio work and small group projects will lead to opportunities for substantive research and creative projects, including a week-long field study winter and a two-week field study or studio intensive spring quarter.

Through all-program lectures/workshops, peer presentations, seminars , and field trips, as well as studio projects, students will develop abilities in drawing and design, tools and materials (both low-tech and high-tech), and experimental forms of expressive, expository, and reflective thinking, speaking and writing. Book possibilities include: The Thinking Hand (Pallasmaa), The Language of Ornament (Trilling), Thinking with Things (Pasztory), Ghana: Where the Bead Speaks (Adoo), Redrawing Anthropology (Ingold), Imagining Language (Rasula and McCaffery), The Cognitive Life of Things: Recasting the Boundaries of Mind (Malafouris and Renfrew), A Topology of Everyday Constellations (Teyssot), Make: 3D Printing (France), The Diamond Age (Stephenson), Ornament: The Politics of Architecture and Subjectivity (Picon), Hello, The Roses (Berssenbrugge), and Beautiful Evidence (Tufte).

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

visual and environmental arts, cultural studies, architecture and art education.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


Buy books for this program through The Greener Store.

Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online

More information about online learning.

Required Fees

$50 per quarter for entrance fees and studio supplies.

Special Expenses

Approximately $100 in winter for a field trip to Neah Bay and $100 in spring for a field trip to Portland.  Students will also have opportunities to do individual and small group field research on forms of ornament and will be responsible for their own travel, Food, lodging, and admission fees.


Date Revision
July 31st, 2014 This program now accepts students of all levels (Freshmen through Seniors).
July 30th, 2014 Arlen Speights has joined the teaching team; Paul Pham has been removed.
April 3rd, 2014 This program was formerly titled Thinking Through Ornament; description has been updated.
January 23rd, 2014 Paul Pham has joined the program; enrollments have been increased.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Winter); 16 (Spring)

Class standing: Freshmen–Senior; 25% of the seats are reserved for freshmen

Maximum enrollment: 72


Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 20140
So (16 credits): 20141

Go to to register for this program.


Accepting New Students

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 30081
So (16 credits): 30082

Go to to register for this program.

Need Help Finding the Right Program?

Contact Academic Advising for help in answering your questions, planning your future and solving problems.