Friday, August 20, 2010

Greek Keys

If you're like I am, you love Greek keys so much that you keep a file on them. Mine is labeled "Greek Keys and Seals." The graceful key above appeared in a 1926 Westvaco Inspirations for Printers (I'm a little behind in my reading.). I'm sure it predates that time because the little fence-like decoration on top is typical of many 19th century typographic borders.

This beauty is a Pompeian tile design. It's from the 1856 The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones. The Grammar of Ornament was a major reference for graphic designers and lithographers of the 19th century. Jones was an architect, designer and teacher, and was appointed Superintendent of Works for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first world's fair). One person who immersed himself in The Grammar of Ornament was none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.

For my own house, I copied a Greek key from an Irish castle. The key measures 4" deep, is entirely hand-painted, and extends around the living room, dining room and a hallway.

When newcomers to the house realize that the Greek key isn't stenciled, they always say, "That's insane!" (Actually they say, "You're insane!") But the truth of the matter is that I divided the project into two-hour segments per evening, and it was very easy and meditative. I skipped watching TV, relaxed on the floor and solved all the world's problems.


  1. that is amazing! not a stencil? great job and it does sound like a fun project!

  2. I greatly admire such painted treatments, and am also a fan of Greek key. I am amazed that with Chinoiserie, it reads as oriental fretwork. I've also noticed that the swastika, a classical and benign symbol of good luck before the Nazis got it, is a single unit of a particular Greek key design.

    My personal preference is for the simplest Greek key pattern.

    Your painted border reminds me of some architectural painting in churches, and it shows how it makes a very suitable and decorative substitute for costly, raised, labour intensive moldings of plaster or wood. I prefer the painted molding to the dimensional, because they don't collect dust!

  3. Thank you both!

    I enjoy designs that are cross-cultural. I was just noticing the other day the similarity between some Islamic and Celtic designs. The intricate interwoven patterns that they share reminds one that the Celts traveled much further east than most people would guess. ... Mark