Thoughts on Moulding Design

As ornamentation becomes less germane to contemporary picture frame design, the shape of the moulding takes on increasingly more importance.  Without ornament, the moulding ceases being a surface to adorn and becomes the adornment itself.  Although moulding design is a relatively new point of focus for picture framing, it has a rich history in architecture.  For the picture frame designer, it can be useful to allow the tradition of architectural moulding to inform our understanding of picture frame moulding, while at the same time, seeking out ways to go beyond it.

What is Moulding?

The basic premise of any moulding design is the delicate balance of contrasts: convex and concave, light and shadow, substance and lack, and strength and fragility.  Most simply, by ensuring that the eye has nowhere to rest, the moulding succeeds in deflecting attention away from itself to that which is being adorned.  The moulding is a kind of illusion: in its specific form of visual complexity it evades any direct attention at all.  The art of moulding design is to (1) create this balance of contrasts while (2) doing so in a way that is uniquely appropriate to that which it is adorning.

Purposes of Moulding

There are four purposes of architectural moulding that can also be applied to picture frame moulding: accenting structure, creating light and shadows, creating illusion of structural support, and establishing scale.
Creating Light & Shadows

Like moulding, shadows, too, are a meaningful, influential accent that we often forget to notice.  What would the world look like without shadows?  It is hard to imagine the flatness, lack of texture, and monotony that would come out of shadowless world.  The moulding designer doesn’t just appreciate the value of shadows, but goes one step further to understand, master and thus utilize the visual power of shadows.

The moulding doesn’t add shadows where there were none at all, but rather, gives nuance and subtlety in the place where a shadow would necessarily be found.  At the place where the wall meets the ceiling or at the edges of a painting—there is necessarily a crude, sharp shadow line.  The moulding creates a refined shadow, where a more basic one would otherwise be.

Accenting Structure

What is it that makes us want to accent something beautiful?  Why is an object of beauty better off with an accent than standing alone, as is?  The vase to the flowers, the jewelry for a woman, the frame for a painting—what do these things have in common?  Any aesthetic accent is a kind of flag, letting the viewer know that what they are seeing is worth noticing.    An accent is a quiet reminder of where to focus our attention.

An accent is important in architecture, since without it, you might not notice there is anything there at all.  One can easily pass through a room or view a building without giving attention to its form.  This is not often the case with a work of art, which commands attention in itself.   So, the history of moulding as something that accentuates may have the most relevance on the design of frames for mirrors.

Creating the Illusion of Substance and Support

Structurally speaking, a moulding doesn’t actually do that much, but is designed to look like it has an important structural role.  Ceiling moulding is designed to look as though it’s supporting the weight of the ceiling.  So too the picture frame appears to be a necessary structural support.  At times it is (as with works on paper), but in the case of paintings on stretched canvas, the moulding gives the illusion of “holding together” the work of art.  The beauty of this illusion is that it goes both ways, while the moulding gives the illusion of strength, it in turn gives the artwork a new fragility—an illusion of weightlessness that is altogether impossible without the addition of a frame.

Establishing Scale

The moulding’s role in establishing scale requires a fine balance between the object that’s being accented and its surrounding environment.  A large frame can make a painting look grander—but too large and the painting appears very small!

When establishing scale, three factors must be considered: the size of the artwork, the size of the space in which it hangs, and the distance of the viewer from the moulding.

Moulding for Picture Frames

So it seems the purposes of mouldings in architecture have apt application to frame design as well.  The frame designer, however, has even more considerations to make.  In architecture, the mouldings accent a grand space, giving weight and meaning to the otherwise empty space created by a building.  The moulding design is pure—where as it exudes an aesthetic impact on the space, the space does not in turn influence the moulding back.   With framing art, there is a more symbiotic dialogue between the moulding and its subject, creating even more purposes and constraints for the moulding designer to consider.

A picture frame moulding must enhance the implied dimensionality of the artwork, and also has the possibility of alluding to the work of art and subverting our expectations of the moulding itself.

Enhance Implied Dimensionality

Any given work of art, be it abstract or representational, has an implied dimensionality, a way in which our eye is tricked into bringing a three dimensional world to life where there are only two.  The frame designer must consider whether the painting is bulbous, myopic and soft, or sharp, angular and distant? Once such determinations are made, it is at the frame designers discretion how to relate to that information.  Sometimes dimensionality is brought out through mimicking it in the moulding, other times, through contrasting it with it’s most opposite likeness.

Allude to the work of art

An unnecessary but delightful addition to any moulding is alluding to elements of the work of art.  Like literary allusions, aesthetic allusions must be subtle and can be designed for numerous effects: to be funny, to provoke thought, to enhance meaning.  Allusions can be anything, to pick up a shape or texture of the work of art, basically, to bring to life some otherwise subtle element.

To Subvert All Expectations of the Moulding

The possibility for subversion and unpredictability is the primary way that picture frame moulding design can be so unlike architectural moulding and has so much room to grow as a niche design field.  The most important reason for the frame designer to study traditional mouldings is to best understand what our expectations are, so they can be broken.

Take for example, our expectation that mouldings create an illusion of structural support.  In the right context, it might be appropriate for a frame to create the illusion of weakness, thus creating the illusion of the artwork as very robust.

Of course, creating subversive moulding is entirely dependent on the work of art, but if we understand how much influence the moulding/artwork dialogue has on how the artwork is perceived, the possibilities are limitless in how to moulding can assist an artwork in fulfilling its purpose.


When designing original and unconventional mouldings, the only hard and fast rule the designer would be wise to follow is the initial premise of balancing contrasts.  Any frame that allows itself to be a focal point in and of itself, completely fails in its purpose.