Winter 2005

Marian Bantjes: Ornamentality

For Marian Bantjes the most powerful ornament comes out of obsession and long hours of intense labour

‘I have a very uneasy and, yes, guilty relationship with decoration. I do it because I have to; it’s an obsession,’ says Marian Bantjes, a designer and illustrator from Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada. It is not the obsessive aspect of her relationship to her work that concerns Bantjes, however. In fact, she thinks that the best and most powerful ornament comes out of obsession and long hours of intense labour, where all sense of time and reality disappears. What she does struggle with is the extent to which what she creates is superfluous stuff, and whether there is deeper meaning to be found through working with ornament.

‘I do feel that there is something there in my own work (and in other people’s) that goes beyond gratuitous prettiness,’ says Bantjes. In ‘Please Say Yes’, for example, she has given the words Please Say Yes deep intricate taproots that cascade the length of the page as a way to express what she calls all the imploring hope of those words. She says, ‘The ornament in this case is not merely decorative.’

‘There is something about ornate intricate work that seems to stir the soul in most people,’ Bantjes observes. ‘How can you look at anything by William Morris and not feel some kind of awestruck love?

‘Interestingly, the decorative arts appear most famously in religious works. There really is some kind of connection to love and inspiration there. The thousand ornamental ways that Islamic calligraphy praises Allah; the glitter of stained glass windows and the excess of carved arches in churches; illuminated manuscripts. Where there is genuine love, care and craft, I think there is something being communicated that cannot be communicated in any other way.’

Bantjes’ investigation of patterns began through painting them. They began to make their way into the design work she was doing, but it wasn’t until she left her design firm Digitopolis in 2003 that the patterns, as she puts it, ‘sprung forward full force’. At the same time she was becoming increasingly restless with the standard tasteful and clean aesthetic that dominated so much graphic design at the time.

According to Bantjes there’s a big difference between ‘good and bad ornament’, between ‘decorative messes and considered arrangement’. She is not impressed by patterns that simply repeat an icon over and over again: ‘Anybody can do that. A good pattern is like William Morris where the tiling unit is seamless. You have to analyse the whole pattern to find where that tiling unit is,’ she says.

Bantjes always begins the process of pattern-making by drawing on graph paper, taking care, she says, to think beyond the ‘boxiness of the medium’. She scans the drawing and repeats it using Photoshop. ‘It’s amazing what happens to something when you see it repeated six or eight times,’ she says. ‘I print it out and start redrawing it – filling the holes – then I take it back into Photoshop and repeat it again.’

In the future she would like to explore the possibility of reconciling ornament with Modernism. ‘Rationality and emotionality can live together,’ says Bantjes.