Sonnhild Kestler, gouache on paper, 2019. Photography by Nick Ballón
Sonnhild Kestler, gouache on paper, 2019. Photography by Nick Ballón

The Revival of Pattern, Symbolism, and Craft

by Alice Rawsthorn

None of the symbols in Sonnhild Kestler’s vividly colored, joyously patterned textiles are quite what they seem. You may think that you have spotted familiar things among them—flowers, asterisks, elephants, teardrops, or palm fronds, perhaps—only to realize upon closer inspection that the Swiss designer has depicted each one so idiosyncratically that it has morphed into something more elusive.

Kestler’s love of pattern and symbolism is rooted in her passion for craft, folklore, and mysticism and reflected in the singular objects she has brought back to her Zürich studio from her travels throughout India and Turkey, where she often scours thrift stores. Among her finds are a yellow beaded parakeet from Syria; elaborately embroidered clothing from Algeria, Morocco, and Romania; and a set of wooden toys made in East Germany during the Cold War. 

Details of those objects have inspired different elements of the repetitive patterns that define Kestler’s work, including her textiles and rugs for Maharam. Distinctive though her designs are, Kestler’s aesthetic reflects a general revival of interest in pattern among artists and designers, and in the once-unfashionable phenomena of craftsmanship, folklore, and spiritualism that have long fascinated her.

Take the intricate abstract patterns in the spiritualist paintings of the early 20th-century Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, which were exhibited to great acclaim in late 2018 and early 2019 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Equally popular was this spring’s retrospective at London’s Serpentine Galleries of the geometric drawings made in the mid-20th century by the Swiss healer and mystic Emma Kunz. Meanwhile a highlight of Milan Design Week in April was the opening of a new contemporary art gallery by Massimo De Carlo in an exquisitely restored building designed in the 1930s by the Italian architect Piero Portaluppi. The building had lain derelict for over a decade, and the richly expressive patterns and fine craftsmanship that must once have made it seem fusty and outdated are now among its most seductive qualities. 

Why has this happened? Pattern was not entirely absent from 20th-century design, not least because gifted designers such as Anni Albers, Charles and Ray Eames, and Alexander Girard drew inspiration from the folkloric motifs they admired in Latin America’s artisanal heritage. Yet like other forms of decoration, pattern was marginalized by the modern movement’s focus on standardization and the need to develop a design aesthetic—as simple, sleek, and economical as possible to produce “the best for the most from the least,” as Charles Eames put it. When the Italian postmodernist design group Memphis trumpeted the revival of pattern in its 1981 debut collection, it did so as part of a cheerfully kitsch parody of modernist asceticism.

We now take the functional benefits of standardization for granted, and its aesthetic is tainted by its association with an outdated 20th-century vision of modernity and the deepening environmental crisis. Now that we know the dire consequences of climate emergency, how can we look at industrial products without considering the ecological damage they may have caused? And how can we think of what were once billed as miraculous modern materials, like plastics, without worrying that they will end up aggravating one of our biggest pollution problems by poisoning the oceans? 

Digital technology is another factor. Spending so much of our time devouring digital information and imagery on-screen makes qualities like intimacy and spontaneity feel more attractive to us than globalized blandness. Rather than being dismissed as fusty impediments to the speed and efficiency of the machine age, idiosyncrasy and craftsmanship seem desirable again. Why else would words like “craft,” “artisanal,” and “authenticity” appear so frequently in advertising campaigns? Why would so many people watch YouTube clips of potters working at their wheels, and sign up for classes in sewing, knitting, ceramics, metalwork, and carpentry?

All that screen time is also affecting our visual sensibilities. Digital imagery is constructed from pixels, tiny forms that are too small for us to be able to identify individually but leave us with an instinctive affinity for repetitive patterns of other types, including handmade ones like Kestler’s. This desire is heightened by the surreally intricate shapes produced by 3-D printing and other new digital fabrication technologies. Seeing those otherworldly forms makes us more receptive to other visual diversions, including patterns, in two dimensions as well as three.

No wonder that so many influential product designers—from Hella Jongerius and Scholten & Baijings to Studio Formafantasma—are choosing to enliven their work through the strategic use of pattern, symbolism, color, and texture. And no wonder we are drawn to Kestler’s flair for abstracting familiar objects and shapes into new guises, particularly as their ambiguities empower each of us to interpret them as we wish.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design as an Attitude, published by JRP|Ringier.