September 4, 2012

Walls: Enrichment and Ornamentation
Nancy Goldring


Among the many eccentric jewels lining the shelves of the Reanimation Library, I came across a slim volume entitled Walls: Enrichment and Ornamentation that seemed, upon discovery, a rather large subject for such a slight book. A quick inspection suggested that David van Dommelen's book was an odd blend of practical advice and philosophical meditation. The book is a visual delight with its preponderance of exquisitely printed black and white photographs bracketed by short segments of clearly written text. Intrigued, I began speculating on its theme:

The Lumiere Brothers film, Demolition of a Wall (1896) played backwards and forwards–a visualization of the endless cycle of demolition and reconstruction through history.

Lumiere Brothers - Demolition of a Wall

Ovid's ill-fated Pyramus and Thisbe, who whispered words of love through a gap in the wall.


John William Waterhouse - Thisbe

wall-eyed (from waldeygther, a film on the eye...)
Museum without Walls

And, finally, the absence of walls–of the many displaced people forced to live without shelter, housed in temporary structures cobbled together with meager means far from home.


Refugees in Bredijing, Chad, near Sudan

But a closer scrutiny of van Dommelen's book halted my metaphorical rambling.


A short, simple unrhymed poem by Jane Teller introduces the book, promising a wide-ranging approach to the subject that encompasses everything from a pragmatic analysis of modern room dividers to a thoughtful discussion of walls in relation to the "human condition." The table of contents divides the book into four concise, if imbalanced, sections. The first, "Some Historic Walls," presents a small sampling of walls from around the world. The photos slide quickly through time from the earliest cave paintings to classical Greek architectural sculpture, Roman and medieval frescoes, skipping then to 20th century architectural decorative reliefs, to Diego Rivera's murals, before winding up at the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall.




In the section's conclusion, van Demmelen cites an inscription in a photograph taken in August, 1961, near the German border, which links the image to its historical context: "For with thee I can smash the troops, and with my God, leap over the wall."


This stunningly reductive selection–a mere 15 photographs narrating such a sweeping chronology–seems to suggest that van Demmelen is operating with an underlying set of criteria. It appears that he has contrived a system based on typologies, (i.e. cave walls, sacred walls, etc.), or that he has selected his all time favorites, or those that most enhance the "beauty" of their site.

We now begin to fathom the gist of his argument: he believes the impulse to embellish stems from a basic human need. Walls, then, explores the essential urge to decorate or transform surfaces in ways that transcend the purely functional requisites (i.e. providing structure or delimiting our public and private spaces.) To prove his point he offers a wide sampling: hand prints on cave walls, instructive agitprop murals, several gaudy modernist works by Henry Bertoia, a haunting wooden assemblage by Louise Nevelson, and home-made fireplace mosaics that reflect a desire for a personal aesthetic in prefab homes. Van Dommelen hopes this book will encourage an awareness how the embellishment of walls can enhance the quality of our daily experience and advocates for individual's participation in the design process.

The second chapter reveals much about the attitudes of the time. "The Native Wall," cites examples from Africa, Central America, and other so-called "primitive" regions.


Though written some 10 years after the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, this section can be understood as an attempt to expand the insular visual vocabulary of the American design world, which up to that point had a largely superficial relationship to non-Western design practices that consisted primarily of appropriating and mimicking their more "exotic" elements. An interior designer, Van Dommelen was an enlightened "craftsman." Though uncomfortably dated in its language, this volume indicates his desire to move beyond the limitations of his personal training or background. He attempts to understand how walls have functioned in different societies, and grapples with the notion of how divergent aesthetic systems reflect and enhance their cultures. Not content with mere stylistic imitation of design solutions or motifs, he instead argues for a deeper investigation into the sources of those "other" forms.

The next segment, "The Contemporary Artist and Walls" constitutes the substance of the book. Here van Demmelen writes comfortably on his own turf about what he knows best. A practical "can do" person, primarily interested in facture, he has organized the chapter according to materials. Designers today would likely focus on the effect they intend to create–such as a large, light filled space–and then find the materials to accomplish their aim. Van Demmelen, however, proffers examples of walls built of wood, metal, concrete, etc.–all evoking the styles and proclivities of the Sixties and the methods in current use at the time.

His approach is fascinating, because he avoids discussing the effects or qualities of the materials, touching on but never directly addressing illusionism, transparency, diffused light, mobility, impermanence as ways of apportioning space. He concentrates instead on the various kinds of walls these materials can produce. In many ways his approach parallels certain emergent notions in the area of sculpture–the way arte povera and other process-related works assumed their forms through an inevitability prescribed by the properties of the material.


Eva Hesse - Metronomic Irregularity I


Alexander Girard - Sun Disc

Perhaps more significantly, van Dommelen's method dovetails with the incipient tendency towards the dissolution of the traditional divisions among artists, architects, and "crafsmen" (designers)–the "walls" that separated these fields were being questioned and at least in theory, dismantled. One often heard the common refrain that collaboration among these "makers" would bring about positive results. In many ways this seemingly conventional book begins to subvert certain accepted attitudes: typically in the Sixties one read critiques of a modern architecture that eschewed decoration, of architects who only reluctantly allowed artists to interfere in their design, public sculptors whose works littered our spaces without regard to setting or context, and the poor designers who arrived after the fact to humanize these anonymous, cold spaces. Van Dommelen's book– a craftsman's desire for a shift in process–reflects the critique of earlier design procedure and by altering the entire process hopes to produce new visual forms that enrich our lives.

A brief final section addresses the private home. A discussion of wallpaper would have seemed a logical topic in this chapter, yet interestingly he omits it entirely from his book, offering instead other examples of modest wall treatments such as cabinets that function as room dividers, planters that separate the space into discrete areas, or glass block screening that allows for well lighted interiors to provide a modicum of privacy.

But van Dommelen is ultimately aligned with the American dream–where everyone is a homeowner with a chance to embellish their own space, to replicate, on their own domestic scale, the methods used by artists in the previous chapter. His is decidedly not an urban vision.


A private home featuring an embellished wall


One wonders what this book would be like if it were written today. Van Dommelen hints at a moment in the future when technological advances will entirely alter the way we think about walls. He expresses excitement for the as-yet- unimagined design future. He states in his final chapter: "But regardless of the changes in materials being used, in measuring devices for excellence in beauty, or in man's needs to enrich his daily life, new walls will continue to appear for our personal enjoyment."

He has seen "uncanny" architecture of transparent walls, mirrored exteriors of sky and clouds, structures whose arches span enormous distances, walls that seem to float miraculously above the ground, light forms that dissolve walls into thin air.


Cynthia Eardley, SITE, Inc. - Best Products


Jean Nouvelle - Cartier Foundation


Shiguru Ban - Curtain House

What would he have made of the scrimming of the theatre and the opera?


Hans Jürgen Syberberg - Parsifal

And what of the enormous projections onto public buildings, spectacular light animations that belie the great weight of their structure?

And what of perambulating walls that shift and walk about or grow like plants?


Ron Herron/Archigram - Walking City


John M. Johansen - Nano Animation

What of the destruction of the Berlin Wall? And what of the proliferation of new barriers between countries?

Perhaps van Dommelen would have included among his contemporary examples Estudio Teddy Cruz's contribution to the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2008. To enter the exhibition one passed through a long semi-transparent photographic image of the border fence between Mexico and the United States at San Diego. Despite the delicacy of its form, the project conjured a potent visual metaphor.


While writing this essay, I learned that a memorial exhibition, David van Dommelen: His Art and His Legacy was held during June, 2012. I hope this brief attention to his work proves a timely reanimation of one piece of that legacy.

David B. Van Dommelen was born on 21 August 1929 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He first came to Penn State in 1959 as an instructor in home art and then spent two years at the University of Maine as an assistant professor of design. He returned to Penn State in 1964 and joined the staff of the College of Home Economics. In 1973 he was appointed associate professor of art education in the College of Education. Dommelen was instrumental in planning the Unified Art program in the Centreville School District in the 1960s. The Unified Art program was one of the first such programs which integrated home economics, art, and industrial art with traditional subjects such as mathematics, history, and English in Centreville's two middle schools. He retired in 1987 as professor emeritus of art education and fiber arts.

Nancy Goldring is one of the founding members of SITE, Inc. an experimental architectural group in the 1970's. She has received two Fulbright grants, one to Italy and another to Southeast Asia. The work from the latter appeared in Fall of 1999 as a book published by The Southeast Museum of Photography, Distillations, essay by Alison Nordstrom and Ellen Handy. In 2005 she received a commission from the Comune di Parma to produce a body of work focusing on the monuments of the city which resulted in Palinsesto: The Photographs of Nancy Goldring (Mazzotta) with an essay by David Levi Strauss.

Based in New York, she has been exhibiting her drawings with foto-projection for 30 years. Her recent exhibitions include an exhibition at the Casa dell'Architettura of Rome, Vanishing Points, cat. Essay by Paolo Barbaro and Michael Taussig, a large installation project, Lo Studiolo, for the city of Parma, Gallery 138 in New York, the Palazzo Pigorini in Parma, Houston Center of Photography, and the International Centre of Photography in Bombay, India. Her work is included in many public collections including: The Bibliotheque Nationale, Eastman House Museum, the International Center of Photography in New York, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Smith College Museum, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the Herzlyia Museum, Polaroid Collection, WestLicht Schauplatz für Fotografie. Her photographic work will be featured for 2012-2013 in Raritan Magazine. She writes regularly for the
Architect's Newspaper in New York and Pres.It Magazine in Rome. Her upcoming exhibition in Genoa at Galleria Martini Rochetti opens in September.

View Walls: Enrichment and Ornamentation in the catalog.

Read other Word Processor essays.