What the Heck’s a “Guilloche?”

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What the Heck's a “Guilloche?”

a digital guilloche made from black hole design's tool (see below)

In my never-ending quest to re-integrate ideas of artistry and technology, I’ve been shown another example. Here’s a gorgeous video showing how a guillocheur creates his work.

A guillocheur is sort of a machine operator, sort of a craftsperson, sort of an artist, who creates the beautiful rosettes we’ve all seen engraved into the backs of antique pocketwatches. (The noun form of the art form is “Guilloché,” and a single engraving is called a “Guilloche” with no accent over the e.) Guilloché, in (rudely) simplified terms, essentially a precursor to the Spirograph. Watching the video, you see how much artistry goes into the programming of the machine to make a pattern, how much care goes into turning the design, with careful and consistent hands, into a piece of repeatable art.

This can be repeated mechanically, and without human intervetion, to a point—but only to a point. Here are two lovely tools to create a digital guilloche, if you’d like to try them yourself. Without a pair of hands and a mind guiding the machine, you get only a pattern with none of the care shown for speed, accuracy, or pressure.

To extend this into our work for the digital realm, let’s look at what a template coder does. My partner, Su, is an excellent one. I’ve seen him take the same enormous amounts of care as a guillocheur in considering how the templates are to be created, how the information is to be filed so that it makes sense to anyone looking into a site’s directories, and how the output files are actually rendered by the system. In that respect, his code as a coder is very much artisanal. It’s clearly driven by an urge to create a beautiful, operating thing—but instead of being a case where an artists wants to make a single object each time, the coder enjoys creating a beautiful system which can be wound up and let loose.

Here’s an example of Su’s thinking in action: a little site we made called Hawaiirama (which we’ve since redesigned and re-architected) is a tour guide to the state’s islands. Each island is visually represented in the site’s logo as a floating dot, and that logo was also used in the first version of the design, as a navigational piece to let readers see the entries filed for each island. So to do this, Su devised a lovely little automatic filing system which:

  1. Filed each entry by island

  2. Filed each entry into a set series of categories for all the islands, so that users could see lists of entries by typing URLs manually (so therefore, hawaiirama.com/maui/food/ would reliably yield the same thing as hawaiirama.com/molokai/food/)

  3. Changed the color of the island being viewed in the logotype

  4. Assigned that island’s flower as a dingbat to each entry

  5. Assigned a floral arrangement in the background, showing each island’s official flower

So, basically, a lovely process to create a lovely thing, architected once and then set into motion. (You can see that towards the bottom of this page in our portfolio.)

All these links are courtesy my friend Jesse Ewing.