Mathieu Lehanneur

The ancient symbols found in contemporary interiors

From twisted knots to coats of arms, how mythical shapes and heraldry are turning up in modern homes. What does it all mean, asks Clare Dowdy.

Steeped in history, ancient symbols are a rich seam for contemporary designers looking to give meaning to interiors. The twisted knot, the labyrinth, chequerboard patterns and the triangle are among the symbols turning up in stylish pieces of furniture, lighting and wallpaper. Perhaps popular culture’s fascination with mysticism through the likes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings is having an impact on our homes.

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The checkerboard features in French designer Mathieu Lehanneur’s latest furniture collection, called Illuminations. He has created a stone and marble cabinet covered in the pattern. Checks are associated with Freemasonry, a secretive membership organisation with roots in the traditions and ceremonies of the medieval stonemasons. “I’ve long been fascinated by the signs and symbols of ancient times, particularly those of secret societies,” Lehanneur says.

The equilateral triangle is significant in Freemasonry because of its connection to the sacred number three

All the pieces in Illuminations are inspired by this theme. He has transformed the iconic shape of the twisted knot – also associated with some secret societies – into a wall light made of metal rods. “In its basic form, the knot means a link or brotherhood,” he explains.

And he has turned another symbol – the triangle – into a fireplace. In the past, the equilateral triangle had several meanings, including woman and God, as well as fire, and is significant in Freemasonry because of its connection to the sacred number three.

Although Lehanneur is not a member of any secret society, “I need some meaningful elements to give sense to my life,” he says. With Illuminations, “I’m providing an ecosystem of symbols where people can find their own significance.”

The checkerboard was a key design feature in early heraldry or coats of arms. Heraldry first appeared in the second half of the 12th Century, when crusaders introduced symbols on their shields, explains Stephen Slater, Fellow of the Heraldry Society of England and author of The Complete Book of Heraldry. “Noblemen had an enormous shield that covered almost half their body – the ideal platform for some display of identification.” Simple, geometric patterns made sense because they could be recognised at a distance.

Clive Cheesman, a herald of the College of Arms, the official body for creating and regulating heraldry in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth, backs this up: “Heraldry in its geometric phase went for a checkered pattern big time.”

Cheesman can see the appeal of Medieval heraldry for contemporary designers. “Particularly in its geometric vein, it looks almost op-arty,” he says, referring to optical art, an artistic style that uses optical illusions. “Lots of stripes, zigzags, chevrons, dots and bold colours. If a designer does a zigzag black-and-white pattern today, it would have been recognised [during that period].”

The black-and-white striped floor of a private bank in Luxembourg epitomises this. Here, Belgium design agency Studio Job has created a conceptual interior for Creutz & Partners. Called Always Close, the installation spans four floors and comprises an office, conference room, shop and client meeting space.

Heraldic symbols were there to influence people and create grandeur, and were in some ways the first logos – Job Smeets

Likewise, bold stripes and geometric patterns are a feature of UK-based designer Sue Timney’s homewares and rugs. “The idea of some strong, ordered colour in our lives after so many grey years of controlled and dull interior spaces seems very welcome,” she says. “This is about restraint… with glorious colour thrown in – a seriously interesting visual proposition as a starting point when designing a new space.”

A sense of history

Both Studio Job and Timney also deliver a more literal take on coats of arms. “Something heraldic always looks powerful, formal and static, but we give it a new life, and make the context relevant in a humour-filled way,” says Studio Job co-founder Job Smeets. Creutz & Partners’s building is not open to the public, so the studio – known for its outlandish, highly-decorated style – created a fantastical façade installation of custom-made pieces, including a hand-moulded Creutz & Partners sign and heraldic flags.

“Heraldic symbols were there to influence people and create grandeur, and were in some ways the first logos,” says Smeets. “For Creutz & Partners, we used the same formal construction as the coat of arms and family crest, but in a modern context.”

Timney is drawn to heraldry for more personal reasons. She grew up in a military family surrounded by badges and symbols with a lot of visual and graphic order. “Coats of arms and heraldry convey for me a sense of history, provenance, even security. But above all, I find the symbolism of the graphics immensely beautiful and timeless.” Her family tree-style Ancestral Lineage wallpaper is peppered with heraldic symbols.

It is a popular misconception that heraldic symbols were originally chosen for their meaning. Cheesman debunks this: “Heraldry is remarkably un-esoteric, though people desperately want it to be meaningful. Rather, people attributed meaning after they’d introduced the design.”

Slater explains that “by Tudor times, the heralds were designing shields which would never have been used on a battlefield, instead they were intended to show someone’s illustrious descent. Heralds started to give colours attributes like precious stones. It was absolute tosh. It was people trying to think of symbology.” Then certain images became popular as people copied each other.

The heraldic rearing lion falls into this category. “Lions on shields are common because who wouldn’t want a lion? They’re strong and fierce and look noble,” says Cheesman.

But there are plenty of other ancient sources of symbols, with meaning attached to them. UK-based wallpaper designer Jennifer Shorto has always loved stories, fairy tales, myths and Rosicrucianism (a spiritual and cultural movement started in 17th-Century Europe).

While studying history of art, Shorto was drawn to 13th-and-14th-Century murals by artists such as Giotto. “They look like very still shapes, but are full of movement because they were stuffed full of references and symbolism, making them very powerful.”

Her wallpaper Golden Bees features bees, which over the centuries have symbolised fertility, productivity, wisdom, love and more. And the ancient labyrinth symbol – representing (among other things) a journey – is featured in her Joseph’s Maze wallpaper. She says of her designs: “In a succinct way, you can create a moment where people can dream and their mind will wander.”

Whether it’s heraldry, other medieval aesthetics, secretive societies or myths, symbolism has still plenty of design potential in the 21st Century. As Cheesman puts it: “We live in a visual age.”

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