Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Other Ancient Symbols on 18th, 19th and 20th Century Surface Pattern Design and Their Influences on Contemporary Design

Hieroglyphics are a system of picture-writing, from the Greek, literally meaning “sacred carvings”; these symbols were used extensively on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples, as well as columns and in written texts (Cavendish 1970). This paper will provide an analysis of the influence of Egyptian hieroglyphics and other ancient symbols on 18th, 19th and 20th century surface pattern design and their influences on contemporary design, taking account of the impact on design practice of digital techniques today. A discussion of designers from these periods illustrating their work will be followed by suggestions for critical analysis, and an examination of possible philosophical questions to be considered related to a future professional practice. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion.

Background and Overview. According to Pile (1979), because alphabetic symbols do not represent true analogs for the sounds they actually represent, alphabets have become arbitrary codes that have no meaning until a user receives instruction; this can be readily discerned by a casual review of the sample Egyptian hieroglyphics in the figures below. In fact, “Once the code meaning is unavailable, it cannot be rediscovered by any logical means. The well-known story of the role of the Rosetta stone in unlocking the mystery of the lost meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics is a good illustration of this” (Pile 112). The discovery of the meaning of the hieroglyphics was recorded in 1847 by Morrison and Von Schlegel: “For more than a millennium and a half had the hieroglyphics of an ancient race remained unintelligible to and undeciphered by a posterity of aliens, when at last, amid the recent commotions and tempests of the political world, a happy accident brought the secret to light” (55). Today, though, the design of objects is more concerned with analogous relationships between form and reality; consequently, writing as a system of visual communication tends to lead practitioners away from, rather than toward, the significance of design. Pile points out that in writing, true meaning is two steps removed from reality: Idea (meaning) = word (= sound) = alphabetic symbols (1979). The evolution of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics according to the above formula can be seen in the figures below.

Figure 1. Section from painted scroll called Papyrus of Ani, Eighteenth dynasty. This part of the Book of the Dead shows the weighing or judgment of Ani’s soul. Painting in tempera, writing in ink Source: Stites 1940:100.

Figure 2. Detail showing flight of soul, Papyrus of Ani. Hieroglyphs in ink becoming cursive. Now changing to demotic style of Egyptian writing Source: Stites 1940:100.

The addition of cartouches allowed for the phonetic representation of virtually any word through hieroglyphics; cartouches were oval or oblong figures in hieroglyphics that represented the names, titles, descriptions, etc., of Egyptian deities and persons of high rank. “These were executed on practically every material known to the Egyptians, and often accompanied their owners into the tomb at death” (Wolf 1951:134). Wherever they were used by the ancient Egyptians, hieroglyphics were frequently accompanied by a rich array of colorful design elements that complemented their addition rather than detracted from them: “Every part of the column was richly decorated in color. Lotus leaves or petals swathed the swelling lower part of the shaft, which was elsewhere covered with successive bands of carved pictures and of hieroglyphics. The capital was similarly covered with carved and painted ornament, usually of lotus-flowers or leaves, or alternate stalks of lotus and papyrus” (Hamlin 25).

Figure 3. Example of Cartouches Source: Pile 1979:110.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics in Design. Over 8,000 years ago, the Egyptians were already a highly civilized people, skilled in the arts of peace and war. “The narrow valley of the Nile, fertilized by the periodic overflow of the river, was flanked by rocky heights, nearly vertical in many places, which afforded abundance of excellent building stone, while they both isolated the Egyptians and protected them from foreign aggression” (Hamlin 1911:6). According to Hegel and Knox (1998), the fundamental character of Egyptian temple architecture was first made familiar to contemporary practitioners principally by French scholars. “It consists in the fact that they are open constructions, without roofing, gates, or passages between partitions, especially between porticos and whole forests of columns. There are works of enormous extent outside and variety inside” (Hegel & Knox 643). These structures dazzled the people of the day, of course, but even their ruins continue to attract interest among scholars today. This interest is due in no small part to the elaborate writings that adorn many of the design elements in these remnants, even lacking a strict understanding of what these symbols might actually mean. According to Brunner, no ancient Greek actually understood the true nature of hieroglyphic writing (with the possible exception of Pythagoras). In this regard, the ancient Greeks failed to seek enlightenment about hieroglyphics from their Egyptian contemporaries while they had the chance; in fact, some of these Egyptians even lived on Italian soil and wrote proper hieroglyphic inscriptions on Roman obelisks.

Instead of learning what they actually meant, the Greek tradition was content to maintain that Egyptian hieroglyphs were merely symbolic signs or allegories, and even the Egyptian-born Greek philosopher Plotinus interpreted the Egyptian hieroglyphs entirely from the viewpoint of his esoteric philosophy (Brunner 2004). The Middle Ages continued this tradition of a misguided interpretation of hieroglyphics, or simply ignored them altogether: “Without giving a thought to the possibility that ancient Egyptian originals might be available in Rome, Renaissance artists designed hieroglyphs after Horapollon’s descriptions, as well as from their own imaginations. They used hieroglyphs as wisdom-laden symbols in architecture and also in drawings and paintings” (Brunner 19). A manuscript of Horapollon brought to Florence in 1422, however, generated a renewed interest among the designers of the day (Brunner 2004). The decoding of hieroglyphics through the Rosetta Stone by the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 did not diminish scholars’ fascination for them, but rather spurred a renewal of interest in this ancient system of communication that served as a significant influence on surface pattern design in the West during the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

18th Century — 20th Century Designs Elements. The Victorian era readily embraced Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphic design elements, even to the point of saturation (Lichten 1950). A description of a typical household, “Rosedale Cottage,” was provided by Miss Mitford, who wrote:

The cottage . . . is overdone with frippery and finery, a toy-shop in action, a Brobdignagian baby-house. Every room is in masquerade: the saloon, Chinese, full of jars and mandarins and pagodas; the library, Egyptian, all covered with hieroglyphics, and swarming with furniture crocodiles and sphynxes. Only think of a crocodile couch and a sphynx sofa! They sleep in Turkish tents, and dine in a Gothic chapel . . . Now English ladies and gentlemen in their everyday attire look exceedingly out of place amongst such mummery . . . (Lichten 69).

A good example of an early designer incorporating hieroglyphic elements into design elements was Louis Rorimer. Around 1903, Rorimer created a bedroom set using Egyptian motifs. “Egyptiennerie, the fashion for decorative motifs derived from ancient Egyptian symbols, hieroglyphics, and architectural ornament, had flourished in the eighteenth century and found its way into French, Italian, and English Neoclassical design” (Pina 1990:101). Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Pina reports that romanticized versions of Egyptian forms and symbols continued to influence American furniture designs; however, Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Thutmose IV in 1903 caused additional interest toward the archaeologically correct furniture of which Rorimer became a leading proponent. “For Johnson’s bedroom set, Rorimer used low-relief stylized carving on top of the headboard, footboard, and the cheval glass. The wedge-shaped sunray between each post and rectilinear head and footboard continues the motif, as do the lotus buds on the table legs and papyrus flowers on table and chair feet” (Pina 1990:102). The set featured flowing and tapering vertical lines that resembled an Egyptian obelisk for the mirror, bed, and chair, elements which all contributed to the Egyptian appearance, while diagonal latticework braces on table and chair stretchers duplicate those found on Egyptian furniture (Pina 1990).

Assessment of Influence on Contemporary Designers. It is not surprising that modern designers are attracted to Egyptian hieroglyphics; most hieroglyphics, are, after all, pleasing to the eye and seem to flow in their presentation (even given the differences in how hieroglyphics are read compared to Western manuscripts). While some scholars today might concentrate on what these ancient symbols actually mean, others are content to derive their meaning from what they see in the elements as they are presented. For instance, in his chapter, “Communication through Form,” Pile notes that, “Just as spoken language tends to separate us from the meaning embodied in things and places, written language tends to lead us away from the use of the visual…

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