Art + Design

The Making of the Book:
Plants and Their Application to Ornament


Vanity Fair calls it “lavish and lovely” and Oprah’s magazine, O at Home, writes that its “Gorgeous Prints = A Living Room’s Worth of Art.” How did a 19th century design primer become of one of our most talked-about Art and Design books this spring? I caught up with author David Becker, who wrote the introduction to Plants and Their Application to Ornament, and the book’s editor, Bridget Watson Payne, to find out.

How did you first come across this book, and what was the inspiration for publishing a reproduction of the original?
DB – The original book was given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, three years ago by friends who have added to our illustrated book collection over the years (the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs has a collection of 5,000 illustrated books dating from the fifteenth century to the present, which we consider an integral part of our print and drawing collection). The Museum thought it might be worthwhile to publish a facsimile, as the original book is now quite rare.

BWP – When we received photos of the book’s pages from the MFA, we immediately thought the art was just gorgeous. We thought it could make a really wonderful contemporary book—a book that would be a beautiful volume to have in the home, and at the same time would be of real educational interest and practical use to folks who are interested in design and design history.

What do you think makes this book so compelling to a contemporary audience?
BWP – Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau are all perennially popular styles of decorative arts. It always amazes me how really timeless these styles can be—how their visual vocabularies can fit right in with modern design and décor—and I think this is why they remain so beloved today. And you can really see elements of all these movements getting their start in this book. And then, recently, we’ve seen a big resurgence in interest in the visual language of 19th century Natural History. The whole cabinet-of-natural-curiosities phenomenon really seems to speak to people right now—so you start to see more and more stores, for instance, that sell all kinds of bird’s eggs and seashells and old scientific drawings. And the botanical illustrations in Plants really fit right in with that interest. The fact that this volume brings those two elements—Art Nouveau and Natural History—together, really makes it compelling.


Can you tell us a little bit about this genre of design book?
DB – This type of book is really a “pattern book,” (sometimes called “model book” or “ornament book”) the illustrations of which are used by other artisans and/or designers as ideas for works in various media. They are related, but perhaps slightly different, than books of anatomy or expression expressly meant for artists to use in their paintings, tapestries, or sculpture. The illustrations in Plants and their Application to Ornament illustrate clear representations of patterns for decorative objects: ceramic tile, metalwork, tapestry, stained glass, wallpaper, metalwork, etc. Grasset and his students would not have made any of these objects themselves; he was simply providing ideas of how plant forms could be adapted as decorative motifs.

What is the history of the “pattern book”?
DB – Pattern books actually began in the medieval period, even before printing was invented, when artisans themselves would sketch out their repertory of designs in small sketchbooks to show potential customers the range of objects they could produce. Eventually artists began inventing design motifs and reproducing them in prints, from which other artisans could produce objects. This is a huge category, including furniture, jewelry, silverware, fans, clothes, architectural motifs (interior and exterior), landscaped gardens, and so on. This specific type of book did change somewhat after the Industrial Revolution, when the more corporate “sales catalogue” came more into use, displaying ready-made products—but it didn’t disappear.

What would be our modern equivalent to this type of book?
DB – I think the “pattern book” still survives, if not exactly in a book form. For instance, catalogues from Home Depot or other do-it-yourself stores present hundreds of different doors or kitchen counters for the individual consumer to pick from and assemble, in any variety of paint colors. Finally, the Internet is, I believe, a logical continuation of the pattern book, including various computer-assisted design (CAD) programs for designing buildings, interior spaces, even model railroad layouts. Another category is graphic design, where designers make daily use of thousands of potential type designs and variable design elements that are readily available on the Web.

Were there special production or design concerns involved in reproducing a historical book?
BWP – We began to think about ways we could make a facsimile that would convey some of the beautiful object-quality of a real old book. So we made it oversized—though not quite as big as the original, which at 13 x 18 inches, is really mammoth. Our book is 11 x 13, which still feels quite substantial in your hands, and really allows you to see the details in the art. We also used an extra heavy paper and reproduced the darkening around the edges of the paper that happens with age.

What’s your favorite thing about this book?
BWP – Our designer, Jay Salvas, came up with the idea of giving the book that brilliant orange fabric spine with the plant motif embossed into it. And I think this is just so great, because it means that the outside of the book itself actually does what the book’s content was originally intended it teach—it takes the botanical print of nasturtiums that appears on the cover, and “applies” it to its own fabric binding as a decorative motif. I just love the synchronicity, the circularity, of that.

David Becker is a research fellow in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bridget Watson Payne is Assistant Editor of Art and Design at Chronicle Books.

Guinevere Harrison

Guinevere de la Mare

Guinevere de la Mare is a writer, book lover, and the founder of Silent Book Club. She lives in San Francisco. She also was the senior community manager at Chronicle Books from 2009-2014.

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