By Eric Bradley
Aestheticism is the Rodney Dangerfield of design movements: It can’t get no respect.
That’s unfortunate because it skillfully brings together a ton of attractive, yet disparate elements, into one creative and interesting presentation. Just look at this weird cup. Owls? Crescent moons? Stars? Cranes? Bamboo? The thing looks like the decorative arts equivalent of a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal. But that’s what makes it so dang interesting.
The Sterling silver cup just arrived in our fine art annex. It was made by Elkington Silver around 1890 in England and is notable because it includes mixed-metal accents of pink and yellow gold. The company was led by George Elkington, whose firm is credited with developing the first electroplating process. Like most entrepreneurs of the day, Elkington wasn’t above pursuing the latest trends to turn a fast buck, or rather, a fast pound. The hot trend in late 19th century England was the Aesthetic Movement, which was heavily influenced by a few notable designers fresh from visits to Japan and other Asian countries.
According Karen Rigdon, Heritage’s resident expert on the Aesthetic Movement, the English were so enamored with Asian arts and culture that folks would swipe the Asian prints that were used as packing material from the crates of fine decorative arts on display during The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, aka the first World’s Fair in 1852. The packing material prints were framed in homes all over London.
The English interpretation of all these Japanese and Asian design elements was to add them – all of them – to everything. Silver, transferware porcelain, wallpaper, even door knob plates from the period all have this mishmash of graphic design elements. It was design for design’s sake, but at first glance it looks like abject chaos.
However, if you pause to consider each element as a miniature work of art on a broader canvas you can begin to appreciate how unique and original this movement truly was.
Out of chaos comes beauty.