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At Home: Don't clash your symbols as your decor has meaning

CorrespondentJuly 12, 2013 

A symbol of immortality and renewal, peacock feathers have been used for centuries in Christian art. During the late 1800s and early 1900s they became a central motif in the Art Nouveau era, which influenced interior and fashion design.


Thank the universe for symbols. If it weren’t for that stick figure wearing a triangle, think how many men would have barged into the wrong restroom and been arrested.

But not all symbols are so well recognized. In decorating, many common motifs, which show up repeated in fabrics, tiles and decorative arts, mean something. However, I’ll bet my eyeballs that nine out of 10 American adults don’t know what.

You try: What’s the symbolic meaning of the pineapple, the fleur-de-lis, the egg-and-dart? (Answers below.)

So what, you say? Here’s what: A reckless disregard (or ignorance) of motifs and their meaning in design makes DIY decorators look like amateurs. And it is my job to save us both from that embarrassment.

“You need to know what it means before you hang it up,” said Justine Limpus Parish, who teaches apparel and product design at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif. “Our relation to motif is cultural. How we read a motif comes out of tribal traditions and group think.”

Depending on the culture, marks can inspire (the five Olympic rings) or revile (the swastika).

The point is, before you have a quilt made for a baby girl out of a chevron pattern, know that chevrons symbolize masculine dominance and rank, and are often found in the military and on coats of arms.

Besides using the wrong symbols in the wrong places, DIY decorators also get in trouble when they mix their metaphors, Parish said. “They mix motifs that don’t make sense together ... (like) palm trees and pine cones. Then they wonder why their spaces aren’t coming together.”

To find a motif’s meaning and cultural significance, Google it, she suggests. Type in the name of the symbol (laurel wreath) then the word “meaning.” (You’ll learn it means champion.) Or approach the search backward. To find motifs that represent a look you’re trying to evoke, try time period, “pattern” and application (Baroque pattern wallpaper).

Of course, some decorators mix motifs and make fabulous, eclectic ensembles. However, those with less talent can unwittingly create unsightly, muddled moshpits.

Here are several motifs that have been staples in architecture and decorative arts for centuries, and what they mean:

Fleur-de-lis: The classic symbol, which means “flower of the lily,” took hold in the 12th century when the French monarchy adopted it. The motif represents French royalty and national pride. Thus, it’s most at home in European interiors that lean French.

Scottish thistle: The prickly purple flower is Scotland’s national emblem. It stands alongside the motto: “ Nemo me impune lacessit,” no one harms me without punishment. It conveys “tough.”

Pineapple: This symbol of hospitality is widely present in Southern U.S. homes and colonial-style interiors. Many think the welcome symbol dates back to Christopher Columbus, who first encountered the exotic fruit on a Caribbean island during his Western discovery voyage. He took the novelty back to Europe, where pineapples became a highly coveted gift. In colonial America, the pineapple came to represent a warm welcome, which is why it’s often found carved in headboards, bed posts and door knockers.

Ikats: A hot trend in design today, ikats come from an old Malaysian dyeing process, which creates the irregular pattern. “It references an old method of dyeing, and suggests something ancient and handmade with Eastern influences,” Parish said. Ikats work well in ethnic interiors, but would be out of place in an English Country dining room.

Egg-and-dart: The ancient Greeks alternated the egg shape with the arrow shape to symbolize nothing less than life and death. Found in ancient ruins, this classic pattern still shows up carved in wood, stone or plaster on crown moldings, column capitals and mantels. It’s seriously formal, so may not be the best choice for a rustic cabin or country cottage.

Peacocks: Because peacocks replace their feathers annually and also because the ancients believed a dead peacock’s flesh did not decay, these proud birds and their feathers have long symbolized renewal and immortality. They show up in early Christian art, and the feathers have been used during Easter to symbolize eternal life. Though popular for centuries, peacock feathers became a mainstay motif in the Art Nouveau era, a style still favored by some today.

Design trick: If you really love a motif that strongly suggests a place where you don’t live, say Hawaiian hibiscus flowers if you live in New York, you can still pull it off, Parish said. “One way to cheat is to use the motif in the colorway of your region. Hibiscus colors are bright, so instead use the pattern in urban gray and taupe. Tone it down. Designers do it all the time.”


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