This article was originally published on Eye on Design.
It’s fitting that the 2009 Print article that first put writer Jude Stewart on my radar is the same one that would eventually lead to her latest, very excellent book, Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns (Bloomsbury). The compact, black-and-white cousin to her colorful first book, ROY G. BIV, offers two kinds of reading experiences: the long haul from cover to cover or a choose-your-own-adventure that sends you on a winding path through the book as you leap from term to term via an ingenious indexing system that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever gone down a hyperlink-fueled rabbit hole only to look up from their screen and wonder where the afternoon went.
There’s no “right” way to read Patternalia. Both approaches reveal the insane amount of research that went into the book as well as Stewart’s exceptional authorial ability to string it all together in a way that feels both cohesive and wildly exciting. An extra special nod goes to designer Oliver Munday, who somehow manages to make it not only legible, but beautiful.
In the intro Stewart writes that “On a gut level, we imbue patterns with personalities,” which she admits is “irrational, yet compelling. Why should polka dots seem female, and why Hawaiian-print shirts obnoxious and boorish? It seemed like an unanswerable question, but I couldn’t shake it after the Print article.”
She spent the next six years researching the origins of every pattern known to man, uncovering facts like: “prisoners wear striped uniforms to make escapees visible, but the pattern’s origins run much deeper. Medieval artists depicted disreputable types like prostitutes in stripes, to show they’re ‘barred’ from polite society.” Or that polka dots actually “get their name from an 1840s European polka-dancing craze. It was so popular, in fact, that marketers hawked everything they could as polka-themed, from polka curtains, polka hats, even polka pudding.” Every such snippet is linked to another odd fact, which you invariably arrive at through a circuitous route that takes you from fashion and royalty to war, disease, and slavery. You’ll emerge out the other side enlightened and amazingly well-informed—the sure star of future cocktail parties.
You’ll also discover some favorite new patterns of your own. Stewart is partial to black-and-white checkerboard. “It’s clean, fresh, yet striking and handsome at different scales. It also conveys a surprising range of meanings across cultures: it can suggest speed (in racing flags), law and order (in the form of “Sillitoe tartan,” popular for police uniforms), and spiritual protection (in Bali, you can drape a checked fabric called wastra poleng over something you want to shield).”
As for her least favorite pattern (I had to ask): “Every time I disliked a pattern for purely aesthetic reasons,” Stewart says, “when I dug deeper I found reasons to like it after all.” Take the fleur de lis. “I’m not a Francophile, nor am I a Real Housewife of New Jersey, so this pattern never spoke to me before. But… it’s bewildering how deep its history runs and how many strange hairpin turns it takes. Just the bickering between scholars about whether it’s a lily or an iris or a bee was fascinating. Everybody presents their own compelling evidence, and the apocryphal tales are just delicious as they add up.”
Adding up is something she’s likely to do a lot more of now. When asked about the subject of her next book, Stewart surprised us with her reply. “I’m thinking of a book about numbers. Much like my feeling that patterns have distinct personalities, I notice that I have these irrational hunches about numbers, too. Why did 13 become unlikely in Western cultures? What’s up with 666 and the devil? But non-Western cultures interest me, too. While researching Islamic patterning I learned that 12 is a sacred number to Muslims and therefore incorporated into many patterns. While researching the Korean striped gowns called saek-dong, I learned five is considered a magically complete number in East Asian Taoism.” That’s another rabbit hole we’ll gladly let her lead us down.