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.

I was looking through a recent style magazine that had an ad for a British salvage company. There was a photo of a marvelous etched glass door in the ad, but it was more than half obscured by other salvage! To spare you my own disappointment, I've reconstructed the design, free from the distraction of all the other salvage. Don't you love the scale of the key?

This ceiling by Robert Adam graces the library of Harewood, home of the Lascelles family. King George V's daughter, The Princess Royal, married the 6th Earl of Harewood in 1922, which makes the current owner of this fine Greek key a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

 Where better to look for Greek keys than on a Greek vase?

I have several excellent books by John Boardman on Athenian figure vases of the Classical period. What I have discovered as I delve into Classical art, is that there are many, many variations of Greek keys. But when these stunning vases were at their height, these three key designs predominated.

Photo by Barbara and René Stoeltie, from Irish Georgian, Herbert Ypma, 1998.
This beautiful space was designed in 1742 by Richard Castle, one of Ireland's greatest architects. It's central to Russborough House, a Palladian treasure and home to the first Earl of Milltown. The fanlight serves to bring light to upper floor bedrooms.

I've recreated these Greek keys, which all originated as mosaics. Of course, they would not necessarily have been in these colors.

Eric Cohler Design  |

History of Art  |  H. W. Janson, 1962
A detail of a Greek vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  H. W. Janson describes this as "the oldest characteristically Greek style in the fine arts, the so-called Geometric." It's 8th century B. C., which means that it was created close to the founding of the Olympic Games.

I had to laugh at myself when I saw this Greek key on the floor of the Tampa International Airport. I kept wanting to find a repeating pattern, but there is none! It's completely irregular.

I was in New York City and saw this place setting at the Jonathan Adler store, on Madison Avenue.

As a graphic designer, I'm attracted to the key of this Tory Burch storefront — it's simply his initial repeated. It's a design solution reminiscent of the great English designer, David Hicks.

Photo by Van Chaplin  |  Southern Living
The border design of the linens used by designer Randy Powers is the same concept of repeating "T"s.

Here I've recreated tile work I noticed at the entrance to a store in Sarasota, Florida. It could easily be from Pompeii.

And this is a detail of a Pompeian fresco.

Photo by Lubomir Pořizka  |  The Palaces of Prague, Zdeněk Hojda and Jiří Pešek  |  1994

This handsome key is from the ceiling of Villa Lanna, in Prague. The villa was built in the 1860s and today houses the Academy of Sciences.

Pavlovsk Palace  |  Wikipedia Image

This key comes from a frieze in the Pavlovsk Palace, built by Paul I of Russia in the 1780s, near St. Petersburg.

Photo: Erich Lessing  |  Karl Friedrich Schinkel, An Architect for Prussia  |  1994
This is a detail of a bronze door designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the entrance to the Bauakademie (architectural academy), in Berlin. The academy was built 1831-36, and was demolished in the 1960s, however the door was saved. Below you can see how closely the door compares to its corresponding part in Schinkel's original design.

Photo: Erich Lessing  |  Karl Friedrich Schinkel, An Architect for Prussia  |  1994
A chair of leather and brass from Williams-Sonoma incorporates the Greek key.

The Oxford History of Classical Art  |  John Boardman  |   1993

This complicated key is Etruscan, and comes from the pediment of a temple at Pyrgi. Pyrgi was an ancient Etruscan port in central Italy, now Santa Severa. Stare at the key that I've reconstructed, and five square diamonds will appear.

detail of a photograph by Guillaume de Laubier  |  The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World

Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), known as The Iron Pope, came from a poor family from the village of Montalto. The family name was Peretti, so Pope Sixtus V designed his crest to include a lion holding a branch of pears. The image above is a painting of the pope which hangs in the Vatican library that bears his name. Notice that above the painting is a Greek key that incorporates pears. I've recreated the key below.

And now from the Vatican to the Royal Family. Here is the Meander Tiara, which was worn by Princess Alice of Greece, mother of the Britain's Prince Philip.
Princess Alice of Greece   |

The tiara was a wedding gift from Princess Alice to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, who in turn gave it to Princess Anne.

An 18th century decorative frame
is shown with details of the keys.

This is a Louis XV table of ebony and inlay.

Here, I've recreated the key design of a Roman mosaic floor found in Britain. To see and learn about the Sea God Mosaic, featuring a portrait of Oceanus, go here.