Patternalia: The Whimsical Culture & History of Patterns

 

Jude Stewart—author, color guru and regular Printmag.com contributor—has done it again. In her latest book, Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns, Stewart takes an inquisitive dive into the world of patterns. From cultural significance of polka dots to the historical progression of stripes and plaids, Patternalia explores pattern with scintillating wit and refreshing enthusiasm.

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I’m already a big fan of Stewart’s Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, so I was delighted to dive into her latest work. In Stewarts words, Patternalia “plumbs the backstories of individual patterns, the surprising kinks in how each developed, the uncanny parallels (and overlaps) between patterns natural and invented, and the curious personalities patterns develop over time.”

The book’s cover alone is a thing of beauty, its deliberate and classic Swiss-Style beauty resonating across the minimalistically-illustrated pages within. In a book that could have featured a riotous display of color with reasonable effectiveness, the grayscale scheme accented with soft beiges and yellows makes for a surprisingly relaxing and flexible depiction of the principles and stories Stewart addresses in each chapter. Designed and typeset by Oliver Munday and Taylor Goad, the book and its design form a seamlessly complementary package.

Stewart’s characteristically jaunty tone lends the book a bright, informative charm, allowing for a swift but surprisingly fact-packed journey through the world of pattern design. Accented with literary and historical quotes that demonstrate the cultural significance of each pattern, the book drives home the pervasive presence and importance of pattern in our collective imagination.

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Beginning with “A Crash Course in Pattern,” Stewart guides readers through a quick and dirty rundown of pattern lingo and history. But she expands upon these principles in more detail throughout the following chapters, which are broken down by category: Dots & Spots, Lines & Stripes, Squares & Checks… and so on, for a robust and rich foray into the world of patterns.

Furthermore, the book contains a veritable smorgasbord of intriguing nuggets to file away in your mental fun fact archive. (See below for a few more of my personal favorites.) Throughout the journey, readers learn that patterns aren’t simply for aesthetics. These shapes have influenced and informed architecture, fashion, production, literature, the law—even war. Patternalia certainly worthy of a place on any designer’s bookshelf.

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Intriguing facts and highlights from Patternalia:

Gestalt Patternology

“In Gestalt terms, visually we crave Prägnanz, or ‘pithiness.’ Our brains like symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity—in short, pattern—so we use those principles to define whole forms in everything we see.”

Gambling Patterns

“Roll a die and hit five, and you will be peering down at a quincunx, a motif consisting of five dots staggered on the diagonal. Quincunx—or, if you prefer a less skunky-sounding appellation, quinonce in French—first sprang into existence on Roman coins. A brass quincunx was worth five twelfths of a unit of currency called the as. Medieval heraldry renamed this motive in saltire, a way of tidily organizing five charges (or visual elements) in a family crest.”IMG_0826

Of Hounds’ Teeth and Chicken Feet

“Houndstooth’s origins are hazy, but earliest wearers were probably shepherds in the Scottish Highlands, who likes how splashed mud wasn’t too noticeable on houndstooth outerwear. As the name implies, ‘houndstooth’ got its name from its resemblance to the jagged back teeth of hunting hounds, although the pattern also goes by other names: ‘shepherd’s plaid,’ ‘four-in-four check,’ ‘gun club check,’ and (adorably) ‘puppytooth’ when it’s smaller in scale. To the French it’s called pied de poule, ‘chicken foot.'”

Read more in the whimsical and fascinating Patternalia by Jude Stewart.

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