On Design—Decorative Motifs

Hard edge geometric pattern and a later torn paper geo-floral in the David Hicks collection.  From David Hicks on decoration—with fabrics published by Britwell Books, 1971

Mt. Fuji, Sailing Boats and Pine Trees
When I worked in the David Hicks design studio in the early part of 1970s, David and the rest of us in the studio often referred to Owen Jones’ tome, The Grammar of Ornament.  It provided useful starting points for design ideas, especially for flat patterns.  Characteristic decorative devices representing the main cultures of the world are gathered together on its pages like a sampler of designs that we used to adapt, modify and develop to suit our purposes—usually for textile or carpet designs.  We did not copy.  All we needed were hints to nudge the creative grey cells into generating something new and then we only turned to its pages when we did not have something else to inspire us.

The section on Japan was always a particularly fruitful source of inspiration. By the time I joined the studio and became chief designer in 1969, David had already had some success with a collection of geometric textile designs for an American furnishing company.  But we needed a set of follow-up designs.  Turning to our copy of The Grammar of Ornament, there were plenty of decorative devices in the Japanese section to get us started.  What actually happened, however, was slightly unexpected.  We ended up developing a collection of geometric printed fabric designs originated in torn coloured paper.

One of my geometric designs for David Hicks.  Was it inspired by a Japanese pattern?  From David Hicks on decoration—with fabrics published by Britwell Books, 1971

Of course, geometric designs are not the only ones of which Japan can be proud.  All craft disciplines in Japan have used simplified graphic depictions of mystical as well as natural flora and fauna.  Auspicious symbols have also been used extensively on pieces of pottery, for example, as well as no textiles, on pieces of furniture and as architectural ornaments as well.  And significantly, of course, on lacquerware, too.  Add to this illustrations of landscapes with buildings and natural phenomena and you have an almost complete lexicon of design ideas that have been used for centuries.

My own impression of Mt. Fuji in the modern age, photographed from near Enoshima.

There is, however, one pictorial element that seems to have a special place not only in the Japanese vocabulary of decorative motifs but also in the hearts of the Japanese people as a whole—images of Mt. Fuji, sailing boats and pines.

Despite looking through a number of books on patterns and having done a search on line, I really cannot find anything that comes close to this kind of imagery in traditional British design.  Perhaps I have not looked hard enough.  It may exist but I do not think that it would be anything like as commonly used as this stage set like assemblage—usually three sailing boats along with pine branches or trees all set against a backdrop of Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji itself is such a powerful icon that it is easy to see how it might become a motif.  Also, the scene actually does exist.  Seen either across the waters of Suruga Bay or from a vantage point over one of the lakes that flank this sleeping volcano with its almost eternal snow cap, the overall impression would have been etched on ordinary people’s minds and especially in those of a designer, craftsperson or artist as they passed by.  Nevertheless, that does not mean that everyone who depicted the scene would actually have seen it with their own eyes.

In Ninohe in the north of Japan there is a lacquerware archive containing some small dishes that may date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, although this cannot be verified exactly.  Many were made as samples to offer to eateries and inns by travelling salesmen.  Or they were made for wedding and funeral banquets held in a village headman’s home, which acted as a “community  centre”, and stored there for just such an occasion.

A relatively realistic depiction of Mt. Fuji with sailing boats from the collection in Ninohe.
A more graphic and rather loose rendering of Mt. Fuji, clouds, sailing boats and some shrubbery from the collection in Ninohe.
This lively, abstracted rendering in a painterly style with a medium which usually 
inhibits spontaneity.

In this rural area far from Mt. Fuji the person decorating these simple dishes may only have had another depiction of the scene or a verbal description from which to work.  The informed opinion is that the dishes were probably made from unseasoned beech, which accounts for the distortion to something close to oval from an original circular form.  The lacquerwork, too, is not especially good and certainly not up to the standard of Wajima’s highly durable and robust lacquering techniques.

The rendering of the scene, however, is really interesting.  There are more or less realistic representations of Mt. Fuji with sailing boats and pines, others which are more graphic and still others that are nothing less than an abstract impression of the scene.  When I first saw one of these impressionistic renderings I joked with the officials from the archive that the scene looked so spontaneous that perhaps the artist was anxious to get home early on a Friday evening and hurriedly completed the rendering of the scene with a few sweeps of his brush.

A magnificent makie rendering of the same scene on the lid of a bowl in the collection 
of Sojiji Temple.
The same scene can also be found in a more realistic and elegant rendering on a lid of a bowl held in a collection of old lacquerware at Sojiji Temple on the Noto Peninsula.  Now, Noto is not far from Mt. Fuji as the crow flies, so the artist/craftsman who decorated this piece of fine lacquerware may well have seen the mountain with the naked eye.  But, they could also have seen any number of other depictions of the scene, which had migrated north to Noto from Kyoto via Kanazawa, both important centres for craft production for many centuries.  In which ever case the scene on this lid is just one of a multitude of similar images immediately recognisable as an enduring icon of Japan.  And it epitomises the nation in a way that no other image can.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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