Louis Sullivan produced some of the richest and most fascinating ornament in the history of modern architecture. Although mid-century assessments of his work focused primarily on his mastery of structure, Sullivan firmly believed that the art of architecture—its capacity for emotional expression—was rooted in ornament. Rebelling against conventional neoclassical formulas, he developed a process of design and invention guided by personal creativity and inspiration from nature. Each project followed an organic design process in which ornament emerged from the building materials and structure, just as flowers appear on a plant. Nature provided Sullivan with models of form, design principles, and most importantly, philosophical ideals of creation and integrity.
Sullivan’s early commissions employ abstract, flattened floral motifs in discrete panels, a style related to the French Néo-grec and the Gothic Revival in England. During his most active period Sullivan arrived at an interwoven style of volumetric floral and abstract geometric patterns that would become his signature. The exuberance of the architect’s mature style is not always fully evident in his drawings. His building designs often began as small, delicate sketches indicating the form and proportions of the structure and the general position of ornamental elements. In these sketches, in contrast to his fluid, casual drawings, the curling leaves and crisp geometries of Sullivan’s ornament dematerialize into a field of small pencil dots and lines. As his practice grew, the architect allowed his chief draftsmen to translate rough sketches of ornament into larger drawings for execution in plaster, terracotta, and metal by highly skilled architectural modelers.
When photographers in the 1950s focused on the sensuous, abstract, and even strange beauty of Sullivan’s facades, they contributed to a growing eagerness to consider ornament as one of his most important architectural contributions—the locus of art, intellect, and the freedom of man’s creative powers.
Louis H. Sullivan. McVickers Theater: Sketch for Ornamental Band No. 6, c. 1883–91. Director's Fund.