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The power of pattern

I have been pondering for some time over why some of us love filling our homes with pattern and, for those of us who do, why we find ourselves drawn to different patterns based on the feelings they evoke.

It is surprisingly hard to find much robust evidence on this topic. However, my research so far has led me to conclude that the power of pattern in our homes rests on three main things. First, the role of natural vs man-made forms and how that impacts how they make us feel. Second is culture and how we have developed feelings about certain patterns based on constant exposure to them in certain contexts. Third is optics, the simple fact of how pattern impacts what we literally see when we look at it and the way that in turn impacts a space. Let's delve into this a little more:

The role of nature

Curves and soft lines whether in your furniture or the architecture of your home evoke a feeling of calmness and serenity. It’s believed that this is because it imitates the uneven edges we see in natural forms around us as well as the sun, moon and earth.

A bootroom covered in an ivy pattern

Harder lines on the other hand can feel much more industrial and bring with it a stronger sense of energy that we associate with the efficiency and productivity of the man-made world.

There are of course also patterns that directly imitate nature; we see this in fabrics, wallpapers, rugs and ornaments in abundance. We know there is a wealth of research that exists on biophilic design and how nature is powerful when it comes to our wellbeing and reducing stress levels, so it is not surprising that such patterns often have a nurturing effect in a space.

The role of culture

Cultural and social associations with a pattern and how that impacts how it makes us feel cannot be underestimated and this is no better explained than through the use of stripes throughout history. In the West, horizontal stripes nowadays feel quite fun, and the fatter the stripe the more so.

Whereas a vertical stripe feels much more classic with thinner stripes in particular appearing more formal. Apparently through history the horizontal stripe has been associated pejoratively, for example being worn by convicts many years ago, as well as sailors who would have been seen as subordinate to their captain who would not have sported the same clothing. Later, Audrey Hepburn who was a significant fashion influencer from the late 1940s, famously wore horizontal stripes and helped break its negative associations, and today they are heavily associated with beach apparel. The later playful use of horizontal stripes, certainly in western societies, speaks to the frivolity we feel when we look at interiors that sport them. It probably also explains why you would never see a businessman in a horizontal striped suit! Indeed, vertical stripes, particularly delicate ones, have fairly consistently been used throughout history by higher classes and I’m sure explains why they tend to give a more elegant feel in a space.

It is important of course to recognise that every culture will have its own associations with pattern, and these could vary hugely depending on where you have lived or come from, as well as how you view other cultures in relation to yours. For example beautiful Moroccan patterns evoke a feeling of relaxation and warmth in me after many summers spent there in my younger years, so when I see them I feel a sense of dreamy escape. But I’m pretty sure people in Morocco do not look at their own floors and think ‘ooh how exotic!’. And I wonder how people who aren’t from the UK feel about William Morris patterns compared to the sense of nostalgia that brits feel? Over time, as we become exposed to different patterns in different contexts and what that represents starts to shift, the feelings they evoke will change too.

The role of optics

Last but not least, I’m sure you have all had the experience of the use of pattern to create optical illusions either in books or galleries. The way our brains make sense of the world through what we see around us can be manipulated by pattern, and this can be a clever trick in your home if you want to try and make a room feel more spacious, or cosy, or help rebalance a room of tricky proportions. And indeed to create energy or calmness based on whether the pattern makes you feel more grounded (like a horizontal stripe) or more unstable (like a diagonal stripe). If you are thinking of wallpapering for example, going for a single pattern from floor to ceiling will give the feeling of more space, particularly if it is a small repeat pattern. If you have tall windows then a vertical stripe will draw the eye upwards and really celebrate the height they bring. So thinking carefully when you are bringing in an abundance of a pattern in a space will help make sure it helps bring the right proportions of a room to the fore.

I hope that gives some useful food for thought when you are thinking about what patterns to bring into your home and where to use them. I’ll try to share some tips on how to mix patterns in a space in my next blog as I know that can be a tough nut to crack!

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