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Interpretation And Appreciation Of The Floral Motif Arts Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5261 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Since this is a historical based paper focusing on the way in which wallpaper designers communicate through the use of visual language, different interpretations of the subject of botanical forms, historical background information must be provided to make a fuller understanding possible. This chapter is vital to the study of two dimensional surface design as it will explore the history of wallpaper and the reason one desires to decorate one’s surroundings.

2.2. Literature review

As well as the research carried out exploring the innovations of 20th century wallpaper design and the exploration of different interpretations of the floral motif, some considerable time was also dedicated to investigate the early history of wallpaper. The basic intention of undertaking this research was to examine the way in which wallpaper appeals to society and to provide a more in depth understanding of the sophistication of wallpaper design, which is a vital element of this study. Questions that are deriving the construction of the historical chapter include:

Where did the concept of wallpaper originate from?

What was the function of wallpaper?

When were flowers and botanical forms first used as a form of decoration?

The above objectives were explored by the study of literature surrounding the topic of the history of wallpaper, combing knowledge from books, journals, interior design magazines, and the information from internet sources. The final dissertation will answer these questions and draw relevant conclusions concerning the innovations of two dimensional surface design.

The literature review in this section is intended to name the sources used and does not attempt to evaluate the categorised research which underlies them.

For this historical chapter a number of sources have been thoroughly researched however some of the sources were more informative than others. Wall Papers of France 1800-1850 by Odile Nouvel (1981) gives a comprehensive narration of the history of wallpaper dating back to wallpapers before the nineteenth century and also refers to British wallpaper design. A similar book in terms historical background information which was also studied, Wallpaper in America From The Seventeenth Century to World War 1 by Catherine Lynn(1980) concentrates more on the styles of wallpaper and refers to British and French influences on American Wallpaper design. Chapter three – Eighteenth-Century English wallpaper styles devotes 36 pages of typical wallpaper styles, motifs and patterns from this century including an in depth section on floral patterns. Whether printed in distemper or varnish colours, or whether flocked, floral motifs derived from textile prototypes form the largest category of repeating patterns in this relatively large group of wallpapers known to have been used. (Catherine Lynn 1980 p52) this chapter will be more relevant to later sections of this paper due to the specific information on the interpretation of the floral motif and also the detailed annotations of the provided images which clearly demonstrate the style as well as the predominant characteristics of wallpaper from the 18th century. The Floral home Introduction by Leslie Geddes-Brown (1992) is a very good informative source referring to the history of the floral motif which was a more difficult subject to track down using internet sources.

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More up to date sources which were looked at closely include Lesley Jackson’s Twentieth Century Pattern Design and Off The Wall by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker which both examine pattern as a quintessential part of the 20th Century design history. Both authors provide a brief, informative history of wall coverings since the 15th century and suggest that wallpaper often reflects the cultural climate of the era of which it was produced. Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s A Papered History states that wallpaper was for, who chooses it, who pays for it, who it applies to and who appreciates it are all questions that have had different answers at different times. (A Papered History p7) The three books mentioned above will be very useful in terms of putting into context how wallpaper designers, historic and contemporary, are influenced by their social surroundings which in result affect the aesthetic qualities of their designs.

The most valuable source however has been the wallpaper history website which lists and allows access to online articles which provide a very detailed insight to the history of wallpaper. The most relevant articles relating to this chapter have been by Alan Benjamin (2009) and Babara Krasner Khait (2001) where both texts are designed as an aid in comprehending the many facets of today’s products. Benjamin in particular refers to evidence of wall coverings which dates back to thousands of years B.C, with the use of cave drawings and although this does not resemble wallpaper as we know it today’ it does signify man’s earliest desire to decorate one’s surroundings. The history of wallpaper chapter in his article provides a very specific and technical overview referring to the development of wallpaper and how it was used functionally as well as aesthetic purposes in the 16th century to keep out the cold and damp. Both articles are very well written, being short yet adequate and objective historical accounts which are essential for this paper.

Where did the concept of wall coverings originate from?

According to archaeologists, the tradition of decorating walls dates back to several thousand years B.C in the form of cave drawings and still to this day it is uncertain as why ancient ancestors chose to decorate their surroundings. The two major theories concerning the reasons behind these graphics are explained as wish fulfilment and aesthetics of art. Although this does not resemble wallpaper as known today, it does signify man’s earliest desire to decorate his surroundings. (Benjamin 2009) The ancient Egyptian and Roman civilization are also noted in history to have painted their living environment in a highly individual manner expressing two dimensional portrayals of visible and invisible worlds – Earth and the domain of the Gods. (Benjamin 2009)

Wallpaper actually begun in ancient China, first because the Chinese invented paper, and secondly because they glued rice paper onto their walls as early as 200 B.C

What is the function of wallpaper?

The use of wallpaper initially began as a cheap substitute for tapestry and panelling. Some historians believe that the use of wallpaper dates back to the 1400s. (Krasner-Khait 2001) The first wallpapers in England were individual sheets, decorated with geometrical woodcut patterns and printed in black ink on pale paper by a hand operated press. These papers could have been used for anything from covering up an unfortunate space, concealing uneven plasterwork or as an innovative alternative to hanging pictures on the wall. (Brittain-Catlin p7) Homes were built of stone during this period so the main function and practicality of these hangings was used to keep out the cold and damp. Wallpaper was soon to become the poor man’s tapestry, an imitation of the expensive textiles used in royal households.

Elizabethan England saw a higher demand for wallpaper as its popularity increased. The elite of society were accustomed to hanging large tapestries on the walls of their homes, a tradition from the middle ages. (Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia) These tapestries added colour as well as providing an insulating layer between the stone walls and the room, thus retaining heat in the room. However, tapestries were very expensive and therefore only the very rich could afford them. For the not so rich members of the elite, they turned to wallpaper to brighten up their rooms as they were unable to but tapestries due to price or wars preventing international trade.

Throughout Europe, a fascination began with these papers that offered protection against dampness and improved ability to handle fireplace smoke.

In the twentieth century, when mass production, innovated materials, and printing techniques cross pollinated with an unprecedented fluidity of traditions and designs, wallpaper leapt from its privileged position as a covering for the elite to become the truly democratized and democratizing purveyor of domestic elegance refinement and in some cases, downright kitsch. (Lencek and Bosker, 2004, p9)

When were flowers first used as a form of decoration?

It is extraordinary how floral art crops up in every century and civilization. There is evidence of a detailed wall painting from ancient Egypt that depicts geese grazing from grasses and tiny red flowers which dates back from 2550B.C. Indeed if a tribe or nation does not respect and recreate the beauties of nature, it has little claim to be called civilized. (Geddes-Brown 1992 p8) The flower was used as a symbol and sometimes reflected religious beliefs. The Iris and Lily were both symbols of royalty and the Virgin Mary and were popular subjects of renaissance painters. It is a mistake to identify floral art and decoration only with the chintzy, the countrified and the cosy – though all these styles have tremendous charm. Flowers can be architectural (the Greeks used palm and acanthus leaves for their capital), political (roses and thistles were secret Jacobite signs) and perhaps even sinister (the blood thirsty cultivated dahlias and zinnias). (Geddes-Brown 1991 p8)



Victorian wallpapers


Being noted as important era in the history of wallpaper design, a considerable amount of time was dedicated thoroughly researching Victorian wallpaper. This is an important chapter in the study of the floral motif as this period not only put British design on the map but also redesigned wallpaper all over the world and is still, to this day, popular within the interior market.

As well as the typical characteristics of Victorian wallpaper, much attention will be given to the research of British designer William Morris, who not only was a one- man pattern-making phenomenon, but was also the founding father of the arts and crafts movement.

The overall aims and objectives of this chapter will draw conclusions as to why this period of design was so revolutionary and why Morris’s designs are still used to influence today’s designers. It will put into perspective how wallpaper has developed with the ever changing society and how the subject of the floral motif has morphed from a realistic representation to a more abstract and simplistic form throughout the centuries.

Literature review

The Victorian era, was a grand time for wallpaper featuring over embellished designs. Floral Prints were very popular in Victorian England. Print upon print lined the interior walls of rooms, mostly in a rich and heavy colour palette. Dark red, bottle green, chocolate brown, maroon and deep glowing blue were predominant in a great profusion of pattern and ornament. The advent of mass production of wallpaper put the cabbage rose and arabesque patterns within the budget range of practicality of every home.

Designers such as William Morris and his lyrical interpretations of nature, hand-printed by the wood block method, came to symbolize Art Nouveau.

William Morris’s first wallpaper designs started to appear in the 1860s. They came as a slightly later edition to the textile designs. Morris himself was not a big fan of wallpaper for interiors. He much preferred the idea of using hung textile work, such as tapestry or heavy fabrics framed as panels, which he saw as more traditional for interiors than the fairly recent wallpaper industry. Another reason was the difficulty in achieving a good and faithful reproduction of initial design work. Morris was a definite perfectionist and was not prepared to take on a medium if the results were to be less than perfect.

William Morris maintained that beautiful surroundings improve the quality of life, and that all of the elements which play a part in the overall style of an interior, textiles and wall coverings are among the most important.

“Whatever you have in your room, think first of your walls, for they are that which makes your house a home” William Morris (1834-1896).

William Morris Floral wallpaper designs.

Naturalistic flowers and fruit were characteristics of early Victorian wallpapers; initially, they were superimposed on classical architectural backgrounds but in the 1840’s they were intertwined with elaborate scrolls and cartouches.

By the 1850’s, however, design innovators such as Owen Jones and AWN Pugin had rejected this naturalism in favour of flat, formalised patterns. John Ruskin whose theories on design had a big effect during the second half of the nineteenth century, rejected the whole repertory of Renaissance-Classical decorative motifs as ‘prefabricated’.

William Morris, the guiding light of the arts and crafts movement of the 1870’s and 1880’s generally shared the views of Pugin, Jones and Ruskin. He believed however that flowers used in textiles and wallpaper designs should be seen to be growing naturally. Motifs from nature, though flattened and stylised, were clearly outlined and recognisable in is patterns. They retained their fundamental characteristics, yet their style was so emphasised. Morris and other Arts and Crafts artists were drawn to the natural world for their imagery. Morris himself dismissed the exotic ‘hothouse’ plants so popular with the Victorians and instead drew his floral motifs from his garden and the English countryside. Marigolds, honeysuckle, jasmine and lilies were among the flowers depicted in his wallpaper designs.

Morris believed that the structure of patterns was of crucial importance, as he explained “…if the lines of them grow strongly and grow gracefully, I think they are decidedly helped by the structure not being elaborately concealed.” His designs were rigorously constructed, on either a symmetrical diamond design framework or a branch framework that created a bower effect. Willow boughs or scrolling acanthus leaves were used as a structural background in a number of Morris’ designs. Many of his designs also included complex, subsidiary patterns of small flower growing from meandering stems. His insistence on the highest standards of design is apparent in this quotations:

“… no amount of delicacy is too great in the drawing of the curves of a pattern, no amount of care in getting the leading lines right from the first. Remember that a pattern is either right or wrong. It cannot be forgiven for blundering. A failure forever recurring torments the eye.” William Morris (1834-1896).


Wallpaper analysis

Morris’s first commercial wallpaper designs, as can be seen in the first two images here, Daisy and Pomegranate, were very much a case of stamped motifs on a fairly simple and plain background. Some of the motifs were actually reproduced from Morris’s medieval style tapestry work, usually from incidental backgrounds or lower foregrounds where they were used to fill in spaces around the more important human figures.

Both Daisy and Pomegranate were produced in the mid-1860s and reflect very much the simplicity of much of Morris’s early textile work. In fact, many of the designs initially produced for textiles did end up as wallpaper patterns, with very few changes in the design, if any.

By the 1870s Morris wallpaper design work had become much more accomplished, and therefore much more complex. There is very little, if any plain background to be seen, and whereas the earlier examples were largely independently stamped on to a surface, the later examples are clearly intertwined with each other, making it difficult to see any obvious motifs.

The three designs shown, Larkspar, Pimpernel and Chrysanthemum were all produced in the 1870s. They clearly show the confidence in the design work and the medium, and are therefore much more fluid and free form than the earlier, more tentative work of the 1860s.

It would be tempting to see some of the fluid and meandering flower stems, rich, full flowers and languid leaves, as an indication of the roots of Art Nouveau, and while there is a certain similarity in some of Morris work, it is also firmly rooted within both the British Arts & Craft movement and the styles and fashions of the mid-Victorian design world.

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What makes Morris wallpaper design work stand out from others of the same era is the intensity of the compositions. There is a real observational passion for the natural world that is missing from so much of Victorian floral derived work. To Morris, these designs could not just be interpreted as ‘pretty’, or ‘attractive’, they were much more. They were indeed part of his life’s work and passion. They were a record of the British traditional rural landscape, one of nature and human in a harmonic symbiosis. The intertwining of much of his floral work could be interpreted as a framework in which we are all a part, which is one of the reasons that Morris disliked geometry as a design tool, as he interpreted it as a man-made system for trying to quantify the natural world, rather than allowing the natural world to quantify itself.

The Acanthus wallpaper

The Acanthus has been widely used since early times. A plant with boldly indented and scrolled leaves; it was a common element in Greek and Roman architectural ornament as noted in chapter 1 and a widely used Renaissance Motif. It has appeared in textiles over and over again, from Italian velvets to Arts and Crafts prints. William Morris said of it, ‘No form of ornament has gone so far or lasted so long as this; it has been infinitely varied, used by almost all following styles in one shape or another, and performed many other office besides its original one.” Large lead verdure tapestries, employing foliage in soft greens, tans and browns on a dark blue background were manufactures in France and Flanders in the Sixteenth century and greatly influenced William Morris’ designs for wallpaper. Many designs of the 1890’s including a number of William Morris prints incorporated the large swirling patterns of Acanthus scrolls or other classical floral motifs from the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

(type up literature review)

British Wallpaper in the 1970’s

The Revival of Art Nouveau in the 1970’s

Over half a century after the initial movement of Art Nouveau, it re-emerged for a second time in the 1970’s. This however was not the only art movement that was rediscovered and re-energised in 1970’s wallpaper design. The Art Deco movement was of particular interest which influenced two dimensional surface design, but also aesthetic qualities from a number of Victorian art styles were reincorporated including the works of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

What where the reasons for the re-emergence of the Art Nouveau movement?

However, the generation that came after the Modernist outlook the 1950s and 1960s, started to trawl through the ephemera that had been left behind by nearly a century of Victorianism. A new generation of textile and wallpaper designer, who had little if any of the prejudice against nineteenth century design that was shown by previous generations, were keen to examine the design work and if possible produce work that was inspired by the original, but with a contemporary twist.

There was a wide range of work produced in this neo-Art Nouveau style. Some was close to the original idea of using florals and incorporating the sinuous line that was present in the original style. Interestingly however, although this seemed like a kick against the ideas of modernist design, many of the ideas and philosophies of twentieth century design were incorporated into these new Art Nouveau inspired patterns. Many of the colour schemes for example, were heightened and changed altogether to fit in with interior schemes that were based on an entirely different set of parameters than the turn of the century originals. There was also less of an emphasis on the portrayal of floral design and much more on a vaguer, even abstract quality to the design work, which placed the emphasis firmly on pattern and shape, rather than any form of representational design.

Much of the design work reproduced here (refer to images) is interesting as, although it does represent a re-emergence of interest in past styles, it does not descend into pastiche or plagiarism of the original decorative style. This is not the Laura Ashley style of design, which was more or less a slavishly faithful copy of the period; it is more an interpretation of a design style as seen over the gulf of the twentieth century. Designers saw no point in reproducing faithful copies of the Art Nouveau style, as reproductions were already available. However, they also saw no point in producing new work that copied the style exactly as no one could pretend, as Laura Ashley did, that seventy years of the twentieth century had not happened.

These Art Nouveau revival wallpapers give a fascinating opportunity to picture two points in the history of design, the gap between them and how that gap affected the process of design and interpretation.

Wallpaper design was still popular in the 1970s, though beginning to lose out to painted walls. However, it was still a mainstay in many homes and would continue to be so for the rest of the decade. This popularity meant that the choice and range of design work available was fairly large compared to today’s choices. Geometrically derived patterns, as the ones shown here, were still popular throughout the decade, as were all forms of floral, from the traditional realistically looking flower patterns, to popular graphic interpretations.

All of the patterns shown here are of wallpaper designs from around the 1970s. They all take the flower as their source of inspiration and its subsequent decorative effect. All are basically flat pattern designs, some more abstract than others, but all still using the flower as a standard motif.

Wallpaper Analysis

Taking a flower down to its basic components, you are left with four petals and a circular centre. There are of course endless variations on this theme, with the petals multiplying or decreasing, though four tends to be the lower limit. The centres can also range from a fairly complex pattern with a number of different centres, to a very simple but effective circle. Some of the flower motifs in these examples have become little more than geometric shapes with the flower becoming so abstract that it is barely recognisable as such. However, that does mean that the design is not a floral, no matter how far removed it has become from the original inspiration, it could still justifiably be classed as a floral decoration pattern.

Often, by including more than one type of flower motif, the pattern can take on a more complex appearance. In this way patterns can then sit within patterns, so while the petals and centre of the flower can produce a decorative effect within its own right, a self contained pattern, these can then be used as multiples, creating another pattern. If a different flower motif is then introduced, that flower has a decorative effect of its own and if juxtaposed with the original flower motif, they contrast with each other, thus creating yet another pattern effect. This can go on so that a number of more complex layers are added, though care should be taken not to overload the design, which can become confusing the more elements that are added. This can be a particular problem with wallpaper design whereby a pattern effect has to be able to be interpreted easily from a distance, but must also be effective when seen close up.

Another interesting effect that can be used is when flower motifs overlap each other, creating an opportunity to produce yet another flower motif, and by changing the colour tone slightly, this new flower design will appear as if still connected to the overlapping decorative flower motifs, while retaining some independence from them at the same time.

Colour and tone is an important element, particularly within flat pattern where it is sometimes difficult to give the design elements that make up the pattern enough differentiation for it to have any effect, particularly from a distance. By using similar colours or one colour with different tones, it becomes much easier to see separate elements of the pattern while still maintaining a balanced piece that appears to be both harmonious and effective.

The art world has introduced countless ideas and methods that have been reinterpreted by both textile and wallpaper designers. Abstraction and colour and paint techniques in all their modernist facets, have been used repeatedly and constantly by designers who were keen to add to the repertoire of the industry. Large bold patterns, still with the flower as its centre of inspiration, have been part of the wallpaper industry for a long time. By interpreting and often reinterpreting for the medium concerned, effective large repeat patterns have been produced that seem to have little to do with a mass production industry, but are still mass produced nonetheless. These patterns often appear to be less constructed and less precise, often giving the illusion of spontaneity and creativity, the hallmarks or at least the common interpretation of much of the twentieth century’s fine art output.

This is by no means a comprehensive interpretation of flat design. It only gives a few ideas as to the complex nature of this style of design and the number of variations that are easily achievable. In Conclusion flat design appears to be much more creative and inspiring than traditional floral realism for example, with endless opportunities to both simplify and complicate the same pattern motif.

(Images of 1970s wallpaper)



When embarking on a topic of research, all of the possible methodological factors must be taken into account as sources of information are of great importance. Decisions ave o be made into which method of data collection to use to achieve the greatest information specific to the question at hand. In order to try and find out as much information about the topic and area being disgussed, a variety of acedemic sources were needed, such as books, journals and the internet. These academic sources wer all accesed in a selection of different places. Despite a wide variety of ways to find all of this information, the information did not come without it’s problems.

Finding the information

There are many ways of findng the information that is needed. Most of the information in relation to this study was found in the university library in the textiles department. This was done by searching for and looking through relevant literature in the books that were available in the library. Finding books for relevant information was one of the first things that had to be done in order in order to find background inforation on the topic, such as what work had already been done in the area. Books were also then found in order to find informaton in relation to the question being asked through the use of search engines, which produces a list of books/journals with relevance to keys words, authors etc.

The internet was also used as a method of secondary resourcing. This was used to find websites such as the Wallpaper History website which provides links of online aricles referring to the history of wallpaper and the innovations of wallpaper design. The internet also allowed journals to be found online, this allowed access to more up to date literature which was not provided by the available books in the library. Journals are also quick and easy to find, simply using the search engine tool online, a large number of journals become available to read. These journals were used in the same way as books, to find background knowledge and to help find information towards the question.

The books and journals especially, helped to find vital information on the topics of the innovations of wallpaper design and how designers have put their own stamp on the very popular floral motif which has developed with te ever changing society. This is all acedemic wock which was needed in order to answer the question as thoroughly as possible.


Interviews give a ricj insight to people’s biographies, experience, opinions, values, aspirations, attitudes and feelings. Interviews were taken place in The Temple Newsome Museum which is celebrated for it’s wonderful collections of fine and decorative arts, especially paintings, furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles and most importantly wallpapers. James Lomax the exhibition curator who specialises in the 17th 18th and 9th century was interviewd. This was to obtain an insight of a professionals view on the matter.

Using interviews as methods of colecting data proved to be a reliable source of researc. This is because of the specific questions are asked with a reliable reply relating to the subject matter. Data can be obtained easily and resourcefully using certain questions.

Interviews can be delivered in a structured or unstructures form. Consideration was given to the type of interview that was carried out to gain the best results. There are both advantages to consider when chossing the most appropirate one. Structured interviews are seen as having set questions. These questions are asked and recorded on a standardised schedule. The question cannot be modified during or after the interview. In contrast an unstrctured interview is less formal, where the interviewer has a greater flexibility and freedom. It was thougt that an interview towards the less structured theory would be more effective as the researcher did not want to domain the interview. Planning was essential for the process.


Limitations include trying to find books that were relevant and that were also up to date. As a way of traking this because the university library only had a limited amount of books available on the floral motif, inter library loans were used, this is when books can be loaned form other university libraries. This however can be very time consuming because people may already have the books out and even if they haven’t it can take a few days before the ooks arrive to be collected. Another disadvantage of using the library which proved to be a problem in the stages of research was the opportunity for others to put a reserve on books which were already loaned out. This not only adds pressure to the researcher but limts the time available to read through the books and to thoroughly digest and understand the information provided.


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