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Thematic Essay | Design

The Poetics of Design

By Thomas Humberstone
December 16, 2008
It is a visual experience that is so primal that we cannot see it except through a timeless, archetypal framework fashioned from the original processes of art. 
Una and the Lion
Una and the Lion - Briton Rivière (1880)

In this essay, design will mean the visual language of time and consciousness that is revealed in the beauty of nature. Over the ages, design has left its pattern in the dreamlike basis of the human spirit.

The origin of design is one of many complex stages in the development of culture and the human psyche. The ancients were the first and truest observers of nature, and understood that the eye that observed nature was itself shaped by nature. Ancestral human expression embodied nature’s metaphysical and visual atmosphere of form and color, and was shaped both by what was seen and what was not seen in nature. The ability to create an imagined, fictionalized, abstract image that corresponded to a pattern of nature opened up the milieu of symbolic thought and art, and kindled a light in the darkness of being.

The Latin “psyche”, means soul or spirit and originated from the Greek “psukhe”, breath or being, which derived from the Sanskrit “anu-atma”, or divine spirit. In Metaphysica (circa 4th century BC), the Greek philosopher Aristotle references the phenomenon of “being qua being” or “being observing being” in the transformation from the cocoon of primeval spirit toward symbolic thought. As the human psyche began to emerge from its chrysalis and unfold its wings, design left its pattern in the dreamlike basis of its spirit.

What the ancients saw in design depended on their capacity to make sense of the coherent and transforming possibilities of “being observing being”, which was “art observing nature”, and was, like the spirit of nature and the psyche, perhaps an illusion of sorts, nevertheless,  a framework to observe nature. The more the ancients observed nature the better they understood the interplay of nature and art, which transformed the spirit of nature from something remote and absolute, into a living goddess.

The visual merger of woman and nature implied that what art communicates is what connects us to intuitive rhythms and organic juxtapositions that formed the original processes of art, which we carry within us as a poetic code hidden in symbolic associations. “The poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all things in their right series and procession. For, through that better perception, he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing of metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform; that within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and, following with his eyes the life, uses the forms which express that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of nature.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”, 1844)

By the time the ancients began to think artistically, the primal framework of design was in place, a result of the efficiency of the pre-human primate eyes and brain, which formed during a long incubation in nature. The integration of visual mechanics such as front-facing binocular vision, color vision, and depth awareness, with hand-eye coordination, accelerated the capacity for memory, symbolic thought, and language. The ability to perceive image and color vector, seamless motion, and three-dimensional detail, made colors and textures pleasing to the eye and created a sense of order and balance.

To visualize design in an object allowed the eye to make sense of a pattern, describe it, and use the pattern by transforming it into an archetype. Design invoked the archetypal pattern of nature’s unexpected whims as well as its measured cycles, and –as in textile art –made an impression of defiant color and undeviating empathy with natural form, in the surround of nature. The original processes of art transformed nature into archetypal pattern, which was nature’s way of replicating itself. The spirit of design was to integrate pattern and art, or form and creation, as an experience of the “eye observing nature”.

Wedding of Psyche
Wedding of Psyche - Burne Jones (1895)

It is a visual experience that is so primal that we cannot see it except through a timeless, archetypal framework fashioned from the original processes of art. “One begins to realize that art, in setting out to express nature, teaches us to look, to perceive, to feel. The stone itself becomes an organic substance, and one can feel it being transformed as one moment in its life succeeds another.” (Georges Clemenceau on Monet, circa 1894)

The perception of design had an immediate personal effect, a sense of being pulled into a deeper spiritual level where art was not for the eyes alone. The awareness of pattern in the rhythmical, eternally changing forms and colors of nature, which were inextricably bound to the seasons, was sometimes subtle, ephemeral, and barely perceptible. The ability to draw and arrange colors and images made it possible to delineate the boundaries between the physical and spiritual realms, by seeing pattern on many levels, within the layers, folds, and interrelated components of nature and art.

The ancients knew there was a dramatic element in the human psyche, which reciprocated nature’s correspondence of form and spirit, and mirrored the inherent difference between the conscious and unconscious. On one level, design required the detailed and coherent structure of geometric, floral, and curvilinear motif, and incorporated natural materials such as lapis-lazuli, chrysoprase, and gold. Textures, colors, and shapes were sensory-encoded to subliminal perceptions and emotional responses. At a deeper level, design was abstract, dreamlike, and symbolic, because it expressed the sacred spirit of nature. Paul Cézanne, in 1889, answered a question about natural landscapes with: “Nature is more depth than surface. Hence the need to introduce into our light, vibrations represented by the reds and yellows, and a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air.” At this level abstract color and form are the primal substance of the human psyche.

Design suggested a common thread, magical sequence, or musical pattern in the repeating details of flora and fauna. The mathematics of fractal geometry was a pattern of endless, colorful, interchanging images, dramatic shapes, curves, and spirals, flowing lines and floral shapes. The principles of self-similarity and dynamic equilibrium gave design the symmetry and consistency of a timeless language, written on many levels, like a mandala or spiritual map, which included the harmonious and unharmonious forces of nature.

The observation of nature, which is beauty in its most natural form, fused the visual pattern of nature with the creation and the perception of art. In 1886, Claude Monet wrote this to a friend: “I know that to paint the sea really well, you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place so that you can understand its way in that particular spot and that is why I am working on the same motifs over and over again, four or six times even.” Art is the template of what we are and how we see ourselves in the continuing transformation of nature.

The careful observation of nature through the temperament of art finds parallels and agreements, and shared sensibilities toward the pattern of renewal. Design is a palimpsest of the human psyche. The words that are still clear speak of an indissoluble connection with nature and a pattern in the dreamlike basis of the human spirit.

In 1819, the poet John Keats, who was inspired by the idea of living close to nature as a way to heal the thwarting and fragmenting of an earlier wholeness, a state of well-being that existed in an ideal realm, where the goddess Psyche could revive the primeval spirit and free one of the constraints of civilization, wrote “Ode to Psyche”:

O GODDESS! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
  By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
  Even into thine own soft-conchèd ear:
Surely I dream'd to-day, or did I see
  The wingèd Psyche with awaken'd eyes?
I wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly,
  And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise
Saw two fair creatures, couchèd side by side
  In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof
  Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
        A brooklet, scarce espied:
'Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
  Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
  Their arms embracèd, and their pinions too;
  Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoinèd by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
  At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
        The wingèd boy I knew;
  But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
        His Psyche true!

         –the first stanza of “Ode to Psyche”, John Keats, 1819.

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