International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, Paris 1925

Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts

April 28, 1925 - October 25, 1925

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Decorative Art and Precision Instruments

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The general classification of the exhibition includes a section reserved for scientific apparatus. Some people have expressed astonishment at this, and have wondered from what point of view a scientific apparatus can be considered an object in which decorative art finds an application.

And, indeed, the word "Art" and, to be more precise, the qualification "Modern Decorative Art", awaken in the mind the decoration of our homes, the luxury of our furniture with the originality and sometimes the strangeness of their forms, the richness of carpets and hangings, the harmony and the joy of colours.

The scientific instrument, on the other hand, presents itself to the imagination as a somewhat severe object, whose role is to achieve mathematical precision and which, by its very nature, refuses the charm of artistic ornamentation.

It is remarkable, however, that the builder of scientific instruments has always been called not a craftsman but an artist. It must therefore be concluded that the construction of precision instruments has always been considered an art. But, in this art, what part should be reserved for aesthetics?
What are the sources from which one should draw the elements of ornamentation of the work?
The ancient craftsmen-artists did not hesitate to decorate their works in the manner of the precious furniture used for the ordinary uses of life.

The Alexandrian armillaries, as well as the armillary spheres of the XVth century, were equipped with artistically sculpted and moulded supports; the indexes, loaded with fine chiselling, were finished in the shape of stars or shining suns.
On the surface of the sphere, the constellations took their place, embedded in allegorical illustrations representing Taurus, Virgo, the Chariot... and all the signs of the Zodiac.

The sundials that have come down to us from antiquity were almost always motifs for sculptural decorations on the facades of buildings.

The astrolabes of the Arabs, in addition to the curves and numbers for astronomical determinations, contained numerous engravings, often of remarkable artistic value.

Tycho-Brahé's alidades were embellished with brackets skilfully contoured by the 16th-century ironworker.
The same ornamentation can be seen in the quarter-circles and in the physics and electricity instruments of Abbé Nollet.

It is clear that the builder was trying to correct the geometrical aridity of the concept, by resorting to the resources of an art foreign to the nature of the object for the decoration of his apparatus.

It was this same mentality which led the mechanics of the beginning of the last century to the production of those steam engines whose immense pendulum was supported by magnificent cast-iron columns of the purest Corinthian style.

It must be confessed that this puerile addition to a mechanical construction of an assemblage of useless embellishments, though still admired by some of our masters in modern decorative art, was an aberration.

One does not add to the beauty of a machine by the application of an idle ornament, and it is wrong to imagine that, in a more detailed order, a screw becomes decorative in a mechanical assembly because it has been provided with a head chiselled with a flower and crossed with two saw marks.

However admirable a borrowed decoration may be, it clashes with the reasoned order of the whole, and one can only repeat the well-known adage: Non erat hic locus.

In the early years of the last century there was a reaction against these unfortunate decorative practices. The
The builder stripped his instruments of all ornament, in order to realise, so to speak, skeletally, the scheme of the apparatus strictly corresponding to the scientific operation it had to accomplish.

The result of this construction technique is a stiffness and dryness of line which the artist of our day has endeavoured to correct.

The change has taken place in the construction of all scientific instruments: microscopes, telescopes, spyglasses, prismatic binoculars, sextants, electrical measuring devices, manometers, counters. The simplest instruments, such as the slide rule or the calliper, have taken on a modern appearance, where you can feel the search for a reasoned adaptation of the final form.
We can therefore say that the aesthetics of precision instruments has finally been created. Sober aesthetics, purely intellectual, inaccessible perhaps to minds for which decorative art resides in the display of "futile ornaments for the pleasure of the eyes, but true and decorative aesthetics in its very essence.

©La Science et la Vie - 1925