PRINT December 1986


WALKING ON A BEACH, YOU FIND you find a pebble, and some quality it holds, as well as some quality of the day, the light, your own mood, makes you take it home. You may be able to recall those qualities through the pebble. A stranger, though, finding it on your bookshelf, may see nothing more in it than its form or color, or less. For the things of nature, once brought within culture, need attention and care if they are to retain their vitality to be more than nostalgic emblems. Think of the difference between a rock or shell store and the old Wunderkammern, those carefully arranged antique chambers of curios and artifacts, one of which was recreated at the Venice Biennale this summer. The store can easily become nature’s boutique if its objects are not informed by the care that the curator of the Wunderkammer shows, or that you feel toward the pebble from the beach.

One solution has been to devise a structure in which to set the pebble, like the Wunderkammer, or like the setting for a gem, or like the vase that holds a flower. The practice poses the natural object as kin to the conventionally conceived art object, needing some kind of frame or pedestal to separate it from the world at large. Yet the artwork has found such devices claustrophobic in our century, for they dilute or deny art’s integral role in life. Let us not consign the natural object too hastily to a realm that has proved inadequate to art. After all, the ideas through which we see and understand nature have as much in common with the philosophic and esthetic issues of design as with those of art—perhaps more. Through design, through pattern—its own pattern—the natural object may find a robust contemporary home. And the current moment is a design moment in our culture—a time when design, and redesign, in art and many other fields, is playing a tense part.

Since 1972, I have been working with the hexagonal crystals of snowflakes, deriving from them patterns potentially extensible to infinity. The original forms I selected from W.A. Bentley’s book Snow Crystals (1931), which contains photographs of over 2,400 of these structures; I rephotographed some 350 of them, altered each of them slightly (by shortening the six “legs” of the snowflake, for evenness), then reprinted each 100 times and pasted the ensuing images into respective grids. The result was 350 related yet dissimilar patterns. Twenty-one of them are reproduced here.

In 1908, in his essay “Ornament and Verbrechen” (Ornament and crime), Adolf Loos attacked decoration in architecture. The essentials-only ethos he advocated was to become a central tenet of Modernism—part of the purism that the post-Modern artists and architects of the last twenty years have been reacting against. Their work has left us in a position to recognize the value of ornament and of the patterns of which ornament so often consists, and to see that such familiar phrases as “it’s merely decorative” reflect facile responses rooted in a tunnel vision of culture. Pattern is as much a part of human thought as the hexagon is of the seemingly amorphous snowflake. It has its dangers—we are becoming increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on us by “patterned” responses and ways of thinking and seeing—yet it also reflects the basic human need to sort out order from chaos. Furthermore, the repetition of form involved in pattern need not connote emptiness; as the snowflake shows, it is a natural phenomenon, and as such has its own life, independent of human constructions of meaning. Yet the objective designs of nature can run parallel to subjective human creations—some snow-crystal patterns, for example, are pure Art Nouveau, Florentine, or Islamic. Flow easily nature creates endless variety here. And if you look not at the snowflake’s countless variations, but at any one crystal, you find a mandala, an image of infinity

Design and pattern are democratic modes. The natural forms they so often incorporate are archetypes, accessible to all, both abstract and instantly familiar. In the West, we have tended to put a premium on the unique individual subjectivity; we have viewed art and the artist as different, separate from everything and everyone else. This has biased us against design, because of its functional aspect. Yet through pattern and design, I believe, we may find a way to think about creative work that neither stresses its difference from life nor reduces its elements to anonymity. Over the next few years, design working with nature will become increasingly important to us. (Not for the first time—Modernism was not as monolithic or as in love with the machine as it is sometimes thought to have been; I think of Paul Klee, of Frank Lloyd Wright, and of Gyorgy Kepes, among others.) After the severity of certain of the doctrines of Modernism, post-Modernism’s respect for ornament may offer, at its best (I will not defend its excesses), a new visual openness; and in the context of a culture overly self-involved, overly introspective (as when art constantly recycles images and styles from its own history), nature can return as an inexhaustible source of revitalizing images. Symbolizing the endless creativity of nature, and the symbiosis of order and chaos, pattern and invention, the snowflake, with its infinite sophistication and infinite simplicity, suggests the commonality of the human world.

Joost Fillers is a publisher who lives in New York He has produced books on origami, the ancient Chinese game of shapes called “tangram,” and the cats cradle. among others. as well as books of patterns, some by William Morris, by the Wiener Werkstätte, and by Raoul Duty others derived from Japanese kimonos. He is planning a book on snow-crystal patterns for the fall of 1987.