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.
I know how it happens. I’ve been there. You’re at your fourth home improvement store looking for that final drape fabric or deco tile to finish your room. You find one that’s the perfect color, scale and material. But the motif? You hesitate.
While you’re waffling, a salesclerks tells you, “As long as you like it, that’s all that matters.” Next thing, you’re pulling out your Visa card.
“You need to know what it means before you hang it up,” says Justine Limpus Parish, who teaches apparel and product design at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena.
“Our relation to motif is cultural,” says Parish. “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, said Parish. “They mix motifs that don’t make sense together.”
“Like Japanese koi and Scottish thistle,” I say.
“Or palm trees and pine cones,” she says.
“Then they wonder why their spaces aren’t coming together.”
“You know, that North Dakota home that has monkeys-in-the-jungle-print wallpaper in the powder room,” she adds.
To find a motif’s meaning and cultural significance, Google it, she says. Type in the name of the symbol (laurel wreath) then the word “meaning.” (You’ll learn it means champion.) Or approach the search backwards. 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:
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.