The Language of Ornament explores the history of ornament in the Western design tradition. It examines a series of motifs, charting their appearance and reappearance in design from antiquity through to the twenty-first century. A wide range of artworks illustrate how motifs have been translated from one medium to another and have been borrowed and reinterpreted over the centuries.

Works in the exhibition range from eighteenth-century Wedgwood ceramics copying motifs from ancient Greek vases to a postmodern tea service by Michael Graves drawing on Classical architectural forms. The putto figure, a chubby male child dating from Classical antiquity, was a popular motif from the Renaissance period onwards. Essentially a secular, ornamental motif, it occurs continually through the early modern period right down to the twentieth century, referenced through a broad range of media including prints, sculpture and ceramics. The exhibition encompasses a rich selection of works from the NGV Collection including ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, textiles, prints and contemporary design and pop culture.