Intricate shapes, geometric flourishes and symmetrical mosaics – patterns are more popular than ever. Nick Spence catches up with the designers pushing patterns in new and exciting directions
Patterns are everywhere, from design and illustration to fashion and home interiors. It's not difficult to see the appeal. Decorative and contemplative, classic yet contemporary, they entice and inspire.
In recent years pattern design has enjoyed a renaissance, with innovative printing techniques encouraging artists to produce evocative wallpapers, textiles and ceramics. For some, the renewed interest is also a backlash against austerity and a celebration of beautification in the face of cutbacks and the perceived credit crunch.
"After years of minimalism, decoration is back," says Zoe Barker, textile director at new Southampton studio Boe&me, which creates designs for textiles, fashion, interiors and more. "Decoration is important - it's a chance to appreciate something purely for its aesthetics. It's human nature to decorate yourself and your surroundings, and pattern design celebrates the joy of the unnecessary."
Fashion and fabrics in particular have become productive areas. Creating patterns embraces both the hands-on approach of intuitive mark-making, by using wooden blocks or stencils, and the digital, with designers conjuring up patterns that can be repeated perfectly into infinity. The possibilities are endless: few rules dictate what shapes are used, and sequences can be precise or random.
Michael Perry is a Brooklyn-based designer and author who works under the name Midwestisbest. He's assembled some stunning hand-drawn designs in his new book Over and Over: A Catalog of Hand-Drawn Patterns. More than 50 designers feature, including Deanne Cheuk, Robin Cameron and Garrett Morin. "Out of my peers I chose those who I think are pushing the boundaries of patterns. I looked for people who use patterns in a way that might not even be considered a pattern, and people who might not have ever made patterns before," explains Perry.
While keen to commend the colourful and exuberant complexity of the hand-drawn, Perry is fully aware that technology has helped drive the trend. "With advancing technologies it's easier to print patterns on anything. A few years ago when designing shirts I would propose all-over prints and the printers would refuse them. Now you can buy all-over T-shirts anywhere. So accessibility has got to be a factor. Computers make patterns easier."
Patterns can attract an audience far beyond those for design and illustration. Stockholm-based designer Hanna Werning has even seen her designs appear on the catwalk. "I've always been interested in patterns and details, but never really took notice of them until I started playing with screen-printing while I was in college," she explains. "Then I really got hooked on repeats, which made me start playing with repeated elements and layers."
Although self-initiated, her patterns soon caught the attention of big clients. "People got interested in the work so much that I had to start producing something," she says. "First I produced the AnimalFlower wallpaper posters. These made companies, not just customers, interested in my work. That's how I got new clients who wanted me to make more new patterns and products."
Photoshop, Illustrator and font-creation tools have all helped foster digital pattern-making. They provide a high level of control and precision, yet also leave scope for constant experimentation. Sampling and creating your unique image-based brushes in Photoshop is a painless process, and makes it easy to produce stunning repeat designs - particularly by rotating the canvas randomly and varying the size, colour and opacity of brushes. Vector applications such as Illustrator allow for scaling, so your patterns are easy to reproduce at any size. "Illustrator is a good tool to experiment with," enthuses Petra Kapitza, who, with her sister Nicole, makes up East London design duo Kapitza. The pair have won many admirers with their picture fonts and pattern-based illustrations.
"Our designs are usually based on an interest we have in a specific subject," Kapitza explains. "We start by experimenting with shapes in Illustrator. Once we have a whole character set we create a pattern font using FontLab. When we're happy with the font, we use it to create our patterns." The agency sells a range of illustrations, patterns, prints, posters and fonts. "We're always excited about the endless possibilities the pattern fonts offer to create an infinite number of exciting and diverse patterns. Patterns are fascinating, and can be used in so many ways."
Because of this versatility, defining what makes a great pattern design can be difficult. Almost anything will work, but experimentation is the key. "I sometimes use patterns in the same way you might use colour," offers Perry. "I just try and make something wild and crazy. I love it when things are so detailed that you have to wonder how they're possible."
Even creatives with an established style suggest a little versatility can work wonders. "It can be different things: a repeat pattern that doesn't really show, a nice flow and rhythm, or an unexpected combination of colours and elements," says Werning. If inspiration is wanting, there's a wealth of designs available covering every style and discipline. Sometimes the simplest pattern can have the greatest impact, and characterise a time and place perfectly. "I find it amazing how something so simple can have an impact on the rest of your life, even as fashions and trends progress," adds Pete Davies, design director at Boe&me. "For me, a great pattern is one you always remember."
Over and Over: A Catalog of Hand-Drawn Patterns from Michael Perry is available from Princeton Architectural Press for $35/£20