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Design puzzles, part 1

October 27, 2009

Two years ago, while I was working part-time at Artifacts, I undertook a serious study of design (in an art sense, not graphic design). I also made good use of my time there to explore my art/design aesthetic – what colors, shapes, symbols, etc. appealed to me, and why; which ones did not, and why; which artists’ works did I find appealing, or not. Which design principles was I especially drawn to? Which design principles did I want to incorporate into my own future works? (Which did I find evidence for in past works of mine?)

But first I needed to acquire a design vocabulary, so I set out to find books on various kinds of design to educate myself. I naturally gravitated towards textile design, and learned a great deal (then fashion design and ornamental design; more recently, I’ve added graphic and information design to the mix).

In Textiles: A Handbook for Designers, Marypaul Yates says, “Unlike a painting or drawing, which is designed in relation to its boundaries or edges, the elements in a textile design are designed only in relation to each other. There are no boundaries …” (p. 54)

I began my life as an artist drawing and painting, but no one ever explained the above viewpoint to me. And the more I’ve reflected on it, the more I realize I never thought of my drawings or paintings as being discrete entities; they were always part of some larger work, possibly with sections existing on another plane, or around a corner of perception. But every work I’ve ever done has, in my mind, been more like, yes, a tapestry. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that I became not just a weaver, but a tapestry weaver…

Researching and writing a paper for high school Spanish on Islamic art and architecture sparked a lifelong interest in the topics. And a key feature of many Islamic mosaics is tessellated motifs. (A tessellated design fills the entire space – there are no remainders. So, a grid, but also a soccer ball’s patterned surface of hexagons and pentagons.)

Philosophically, I like the idea of a tessellated design, but most that I’ve seen are “too geometric”, and entirely too predictable, for me. I prefer a balance of design with chaos, deterministic or otherwise.

But I’ve always wanted to design fabric, and if I did that, I’m guessing I would need some sort of algorithm to produce (design) repeats at intervals. So what can I use to get me started? Well, math is good: the golden ratio, sacred geometry, the Fibonacci sequence. So my first foray into using math to create tessellated designs was the Fibonacci series mosaics. Paper-pattern tiles are apportioned by numbers in the Fibonacci series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, …

An unexpected discovery was that I prefer a variety of values, as well as hues. Number 3, “Sedna’s Reverie”, was supposed to be primarily shades of blue and low values, but I found that too constraining, and not very interesting, so I mixed it up a little. And I really like the result.

The next step, I think, will be using different shapes. I don’t really like squares or rectangles as design motifs. I prefer triangles, spirals, and circles, in that order.

I’m also intrigued by “nearest neighbor analysis”, which I vaguely remember from grad school (GIS and remote sensing), but would like to apply to textile designs in some way. Maybe that’s the topic for Design Puzzles, part 2.

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