Deep Surface: Elaboration


To extrapolate or build up (and out) from simple components

Studio Kapitza, Geometric book, 2008

Building complexity out of simple units yields a richness based on an economy of means—turning virtuosity into a virtue. Nicole and Petra Kapitza’s Geometric project confounds the imagination with possibilities. Their 100-font package can be used to generate endless variations, 264 of which are gathered in a book of the same name. Behind the bright plaids, the overlaid dots, and crosshatch stripes, is an invisible system of software—a combination of rational mathematics and irrational pleasure.

Of course, highly expressive abstractions and mathematics have a long history of mutual engagement. We need only think of Arabic tile work. Their ancient patterns reflect a belief in the infinity of the cosmos; contemporary designers are more likely to represent the infinity of the digital universe. Both elicit beauty.

Andrea Tinnes, Volvox, 1999 – 2001

Iznik tiles, c. 16th century

Coincidentally or not, Andrea Tinnes’ interactive pattern generator Volvox creates patterns that resemble another Middle Eastern genre of pattern, found in the Iznik tiles of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Where the Ottomans would have had to imagine movement from fixed shapes, we are free to animate Tinnes’ vocabulary of forms. They move and change fluidly, as we alter variables of color, transparency, scale, and rotation.

Her static suite of centered icons, seen above, was inspired by nature — not the Turkish tulips of Iznik tiles — but primitive underwater flora. Volvox is the Latin word for freshwater algae that form spherical multi-cellular colonies.1 Each shape in the system is composed of superimposed glyphs whose variables can be specified. Like the algae that inspired them, the elements of Volvox are part of an integral whole.

Fernando and Humberto Campana, Coralla Chair, 2003-04, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

The digital realm isn’t the only arena where designers investigate images and ideas of growth, or look to nature for inspiration. In developing the Corallo chair, Brazilian designers Fernando and Umberto Campana looked to branches of undersea coral. “Corallo” means coral in Italian; and in warm, clean water, coral reefs can grow to lengths of hundreds of feet. In theory, so can the Campanas’ chair. The tangles of its armature seem to sprout spontaneously, only stopping when some inestimable equilibrium is reached. As with the coral reefs that inspired them, no two chairs are alike. The results are as varied as their makers wish them to be.

(To see the full roster of designers included in Elaboration, click here.)

Introduction to Deep Surface: Contemporary Ornament and Pattern


The Everyday





  • Andrea Tinnes, Volvox. Accessed 6/24/11.