Plain or Fancy? — Exhibit Broaches Dateless Design Debate

There’s long been a stylistic rift between minimalism and decorativeness — apparent in the differences in our clothes, our furniture, even infographics. One camp leans more toward function, the other: fashion. But really, aesthetic design helps with functionality and vice versa. Our choices in these matters instead boil down to many different considerations that fall on a stylistic scale. Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art helps viewers consider their own preferences and biases. The exhibition contains 40 works, plain and fancy, from the museum’s European decorative arts collection. After looking at enough of them, the line between simple and ornate blurs a bit, just as many of us don’t follow the dichotomy of plain versus fancy in our own styles, but rather a mixture of both.

Coffee and tea service (Déjeuner chinois reticulé) Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present) Designer: Hyacinthe Régnier (active 1825–63); Various dimensions; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Helen Boehm, in memory of her late husband, Edward Marshall Boehm, 1969 (69.193.1–.11)
Tea service Josef Hoffmann (Austrian, Pirnitz 1870–1956 Vienna) Manufacturer: Wiener Werkstätte Ca. 1910 Silver, amethyst, carnelian, and ebony; Various dimensions; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky Fund, 2000 (2000.278.1-.9) 3. Vase (Vase à tête d'éléphant) (one of a pair) Sèvres Manufactory, model designed by Jean-Claude Dupl
For infographics in the news (and, arguably, in most situations) the conveyance of information is paramount. How quickly and clearly you can convey information governs many of the the stylistic choices journalists make in their newsroom graphics.  But it’s also quite arguable that artistic elements have very practical purposes as well. For example, a good heatmap doesn’t follow the strictures of the color wheel, but rather the subtleties of perception as seen through hue and lightness. And, while overly busy maps obfuscate information, small flourishes and appropriate fonts help guide the user. Attractive infographics and data visualizations also compel people to browse them — and what’s the point of an infographic if no one’s looking at it?
Vase Meissen Manufactory German (Meissen), ca. 1710–13 Stoneware; Overall: 15 3/4 × 5 1/4 × 5 1/4 in., 3.8lb. (40 × 13.3 × 13.3 cm, 1700.989g) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of R. Thornton Wilson, 1951 (51.1.4)
Vase (one of a pair) Meissen Manufactory (German, 1710–present) Decorator: Painting in the style of Johann Ehrenfeld Stadler Artist: After a print by Peter Schenk German (Meissen), ca. 1734–36 Hard-paste porcelain; H. 18-5/16 in. (46.5 cm.); Diam. of rim 9-11/16 in. (24.6 cm.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.147)
Cultural critics have made the case for both plain and fancy. In the museum text, English artist William Hogarth is quoted making the case for decoration: “Simplicity, without variety, is wholly insipid,” he wrote.  Alternatively, Austrian architect Adolf Loos disdained ornament, saying that it obscures the shoddy work underneath and that, “A quiet manner is the inevitable mark of a grave and dignified man, ruled by reason rather than by appetite.” The current state of digital media, with an iOS-led move toward more minimal design, seems to embrace the latter. In general, one should remove any noise from their infographics — that is, unnecessary information used more for filler than function. But, that doesn’t mean we need to adopt hard-lined plainness and we should be aware of aesthetic’s place function. There’s room for style even if there’s not much room.
The Rothschild Lamp Andrea Briosco, called Riccio (1470–1532) Italian (Padua), ca. 1510–20 Bronze; Overall (wt including display block): 7 5/8 × 9 × 2 7/8 in., 4.4lb. (19.4 × 22.9 × 7.3 cm, 1995.827g) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2009 (2009.58)
Tea Infuser and Strainer Marianne Brandt (German, Chemnitz 1893–1984 Kirchberg) German, ca. 1924 Silver, ebony; H. 2-7/8 inches (7.3 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Beatrice G. Warren and Leila W. Redstone Fund, 2000 (2000.63a–c)
In fact, good design — maybe not plain or fancy — can help users make the most of our products, functionally and artistically. This exhibition is a good way to train yourself to see what’s important and what’s not. Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts Metropolitan Museum of Art Through Aug. 18 Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at GigaOM. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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