Patterns have taken the fashion world by storm in recent seasons, and interior designers are sitting up and taking note.
Geometric designs are leading the catwalk charge. One critic called Calvin Klein’s collection at this month’s New York Fashion Week “a lesson in geometry”. I don’t remember maths ever being quite so stylish, but the point is well made. Queen of couture Carolina Herrera stole the NYC show with dresses based on so-called kinetic art — several geometric patterns layered on top of each other to create shifting optical illusions as the person wearing the dress moves. Even Michelle Obama has jumped on the bandwagon, choosing a chevron-inspired silver and black gown by Indian designer Naeem Khan to present the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscars.
The message for interior designers is simple: pattern is in play. Scandinavian minimalism is all well and good, but it’s not the only approach. Patterns can have a dramatic effect on how people react to a space. Get it wrong and you can make them nauseous; get it right and they’ll be transported into whatever mood you intended. The tricky part is picking the right pattern for the right place.
Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to chance anymore. Design gurus such as Patricia Rodemann have written extensively on the subject, and while much of their research is psycho-babble, there are some useful nuggets. Rodemann argues that patterns stimulate “physical, emotional and psychological responses”; they can make us cheerful and upbeat, or depressed and withdrawn. Of course, it’s not an exact science; paisley wallpaper is always going to have as many critics as fans. Personal taste still counts and, of course, fashions and fads come and go. So here are a few rules of thumb to help you navigate the maze that is the world of pattern.
The key word is repetition. Patterns take one small element, such as a flower or a diamond, and repeat it. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has an entire section dedicated to patterns in architecture and interior design, using the 19th-century museum building itself as a living example. The V&A’s definition is one of the best: “A pattern results from the repetition of design elements, such as straight lines, and/or motifs, such as star shapes. Patterns can be simple or complex, regular or irregular.”
Structural versus applied
As the name suggests, structural patterns are part of the structure of the space, such as an archway, wall or floor. The effect can be stunning, but by definition they demand some fairly hefty contracting work, so they’re off limits for all but the biggest projects. For structured patterns, think interior design. Applied patterns are far easier to implement, such as floral scatter cushions to damask curtains or check wallpaper. For applied patterns, think interior decoration.
Geometric versus natural
Biophilia is a hot trend in interior design right now, based on the idea of man’s fixation with nature, and a quick glance at many of the world’s most common patterns reveals that this is nothing new: think cave paintings of bison drawn 40,000 years ago. Ancient Chinese and European art embraced so-called zoomorphic patterns depicting animals. Flowers have shaped some of the world’s most recognisable patterns; depending on which version of history you believe, the paisley design is based on a mango from Tamil Nadu in India or a Persian Cypress tree. The famous fleur de lys has less controversial provenance — the literal translation from French is flower of the lily.
At first glance, geometric patterns seem to be the polar opposite of natural patterns, with their abstract forms, sharp lines and mathematical formulas. On closer inspection the lines are blurred. Honeybees build hexagonal cells to hold their honey, while the logarithmic precision of a spiral was first spotted in seashells. Zebra stripes, fish scales and leopard spots speak for themselves.
The design language of the Burj Khalifa is a perfect example of natural and geometric patterns working together. The architectural footprint of the tower is based on the symmetries of the Hymenocallis desert flower, and that basic three-pronged shape permeates every element of the project’s design; it forms the basis of the tower’s logo and is used extensively in the interior decor. It even extends to the website, stationery and range of souvenirs. The flower shape is abstracted into a geometric form, so the effect is subtle and subliminal, but it’s definitely there and helps to give the entire design language of the Burj Khalifa experience a natural coherence.
Patterns can be a great way to express a certain culture or social movement. Rangoli patterns play a similarly powerful role in Indian culture; the average man in the street may not understand the full cultural significance of Rangoli, or even have heard the word, but he knows that when he sees the multicoloured geometric patterns that they just “feel” Indian. Tartan does something similar for Scottish culture. The mashrabiya pattern immediately conjures up images of the Middle East, and has now extended far beyond its origins as a window shade. Indeed, geometric patterns make up one of the three types of decoration in Islamic art, the others being calligraphy and vegetal patterns. An entire subgenre of design called sacred geometry has emerged to explore the powerful role of patterns and design in religious buildings and artwork.
Formal versus informal
When Rodemann argues that patterns have a subconscious psychological impact, she highlights formal versus informal patterns to make her point. Traditional patterns such as damask and fleur de lys immediately bring to mind a sense of formality; by contrast, abstract or cartoonesque patterns set a playful tone, while checks have a more homely feel.
Whatever your preference, don’t be afraid to embrace pattern this season, both in your home and your wardrobe.