The Fancy Shape

RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

RM: You know when you notice something for the first time and suddenly it’s everywhere? My friend Julie Shapiro has a thing for personified teeth on dentist signs, where the cartoon dudes often have a smile and teeth of it’s own. I always notice these now. That and anthropomorphised pigs who are selling themselves as Barbeque, that always gives me the creeps. And one day I noticed that sign stores, you know the ones that print homemade banners and posters for you, always, without fail have the ugliest collections of signs with horrible fonts and their front windows. Now I can’t pass one on the street without taking a picture to document the ironic tragedy. Lots of things are like this for all of us on staff. We can get obsessed with tiny little design flourishes, and this is what happened to producer Avery Trufelman.

AT: It was just a shape.

RM: A basic little shape.

AT: I noticed it on trash cans, I saw it rendered in concrete on a building by my house, in a window of a little victorian home…

RM: Here’s what it looks like: It’s a simple, stylized 4 leaf clover, flattened, with no stem. Very symmetrical.

AT: I took a walk around the block from this convention center! And there it was on the bridge that you take en route to the Walker. And it’s all over interiors- embroidered on bedding and plastered on wallpaper.

CA: You’ll see it anywhere you see great gothic revival building. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the Washington Cathedral. You will also see it in domestic architecture in the great, they’re called “cottages” down in Newport, RI.

AT: California, it’s a hallmark of mission style homes.

CA: You know, it’s like a sponge, it just suck up meaning. However you want it to be used.

AT: This is Christy Anderson.

CA: My name is Christy Anderson, I’m an architectural historian and I teach at The University of Toronto.

RM: And she’s talkin’ about The Quatrefoil. This 4 leaf clover-like shape.
CA: There’s nothing that I can think of like the quatrefoil, which appears in so many different forms over such a long period of time.

It could be endlessly reinterpreted and reunderstood. I mean, it’s something which architectural and art historians sometimes refer to as Iconographical Drift. It’s constantly sort of shifting depending on where it’s used, who’s using it, what purpose they’re using it for.

AT: But no matter where it’s used, it implies the same thing: Fanciness.

RM: And this fanciness symbol, is very basic.

AT: You can pronounce it the French way if you would like.

RM: Meaning “four leaves”

AT: But the American pronunciation works too. It’s hard to know for sure why the quatrefoil is the global “fancy shape.”

RM: There aren’t that many resources on the subject.

CA: There’s nothing on it. You know, nobody’s really worked on it.

RM: But Christy Anderson is a good person to connect the dots.

CA: I rummaged around, I looked and I just started sort of thinking about it. And one of the questions is where does it come from? I mean because things don’t usually just appear out of nowhere.

AT: Christy Anderson says that just by looking at the shape, you can see it has roots in Islamic or Moorish architecture.

CA: That kind of organic shape that comes out of a geometrical form, almost all of them have some kind of Islamic origins. Partly because of the great Mathematicians who were working on early Islamic architecture.

RM: And the Quatrefoil made it’s way to Europe, via the Silk Road.

CA: These small objects could be transported with early carpets, velvets and silks that were brought into Europe as luxury objects.

AT: Once the Quatrefoil made it into Europe, it was incorporated into tracery, which is the stone framework for big glass windows.

RM: And quatrefoil framed stone shapes were considered beautiful because the quatrefoil was difficult to make.

CA: The fanciness of the shape, is because it requires a certain amount of mathematical skill, but also craftsmanship. You know they could have used much simpler forms. They could have used simple diamond forms. You’re seeing something which shouldn’t really be made out of stone. I mean it’s hard, it’s a hard and difficult form to carve out of stone.

RM: So it only appeared in places that could afford them, Like churches.

AT: And because it appeared in churches, this simple shape could take on Christian meaning. Just think of anything in the Christian tradition that comes in a set of four.

CA: The four evangelists.

AT: or a variation on a cross.

CA: There’s a Greek cross with equal arms on all sides. I’m sure people who use the quatrefoil now, will not recount to you this long thing that I’ve recounted to you about Islam and metalwork and all of this.

RM: If you google the image you’ll find a lot of modern interior designers talking about the trendiness of the quatrefoil.

CA: I was just amazed, i found like, about 7 interior designers who said, “The quatrefoil is the shape, and I’m using it on my wallpaper.”

AT: The quatrefoil shape first came back in style, in a big way, in the 19th century; during the gothic revival period.

RM: This was when The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. People were seeking style inspiration from the pre-industrial era and kind of harkening back to a simpler time.

AT: Designers were looking to the past, and around the globe for inspiration. They traveled; photographing, sketching, digging into archives and collecting patterns, motifs, and shapes that they found inspiring.

RM: And they would publish these findings in so called Pattern Books.

CA: In the second half of the 19th century. There was a flourishing of architects and designers who created pattern books of designs, which could be used by architects, masons, craftsmen, really in any field. So it didn’t matter whether you were doing painting, or tile work, these were encyclopedias of design. Of which the most famous one was The Grammar of Ornament which was published by a man named Owen Jones.

AT: Owen Jones was an architect, who took a special interest in ornament and pattern.

CA: I mean if you’ve never seen Owen Jones’ books, they are SO beautiful.

(that’s a big book)

AT: That’s the sound of Brooke Taylor, an interior designer at Arcsine showing me the Grammar of Ornament

RM: The Grammar of Ornament is pages and pages of pure pattern.

BT: And then you know, some text intervening, but for the most part it’s just colorful squares of pattern.

RM: From buildings all over the world.

BT: I mean you’ve got India, Chinese, Celtic, Moorish, Turkish.

RM: Like an Epcot tour, of wallpapers.

CA: Owen Jones’ book sort of transformed the whole way in which design was created. Because now you had these patterns, which were completely disconnected from their original function. They were just forms printed on the page.

AT: Many of the forms across many of the cultures Jones documented were quatrefoils.

CA: It was particularly Owen Jones’ work, The Grammar of Ornament where the quatrefoil had a very important place. Um, was part of a number of different pages on ornament, was repeated over and over again, and certainly sort of spurred on the interest and this form, in the later 19th and early 20th century.

RM: And designers still use these pattern books for inspiration.

BT: Number 18 on this page? I mean, that looks like something somebody would’ve done in the 60’s. It’s kind of modern/art deco. But yeah, no, it’s renaissance.

RM: And it would seem that Jones succeeded in his mission for his book. He hoped The Grammar of Ornament would provide context and background for these patterns, and that they would be a source of inspiration which anyone and everyone could use.

AT: But today, part of the quatrefoils fancy symbolism comes from the modern luxury brands that have associated with it.

RM: Many of which are clamoring to OWN it.

AT: Louis Vuitton had a lawsuit over use of the quatrefoil. Luxury jeweler David Yurman trademarked the word quatrefoil. Another jewelry company, van Cleef and Arpels is fiercely litigious over it’s claim to the shape.

RM: There is a power about this simple form, which is everywhere and yet it had no steady associations with any specific country or movement. And this is what separates it from other ornamental forms like the fleur de lis or even, the swastika.

BT: I mean Middle Ages, seriously! There are patterns from the middle ages in here! And you see the barbed quatrefoil. How can you copyright that?!? (laughs)

AT: The best thing about The Grammar of Ornament are the pages and pages of beautiful pattern. But Jones’ brief introduction is also really interesting. In it, Jones lists 37 propositions for the creation of good decorative design.

BT: General principals in the arrangement of form & color, in architecture and the decorative arts which are advocated throughout this work.

RM: I image people just skip right over these and get to the pretty stuff.

BT: It’s an interesting mix of statements, in these propositions.

AT: I think proposition 13 unlocks the logic behind the inherent attractiveness of the quatrefoil.

BT: Flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate.

RM: Or to translate:

BT: Basically like, don’t just put a bird on it. (laughs)

RM: Flowery designs don’t necessarily look good. According to Jones, the best kinds of designs imply nature, while keeping with Proposition 8

BT: Proposition 8: All ornament should be based upon a geometric construction.

AT: The quatrefoil, is both geometrical and natural but without being too flowery. And this just might be what attracts designers to it over and over again, and keeps it forever floating around us, in Iconographical Drift.



99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman spoke with art historian Christy Anderson, and interior designer Brooke Taylor (who also happens to be our office mate at Arcsine).


“A Speck of Granola” — Teddy Blanks
“Eighth-Grade-Style Crying” — Teddy Blanks
“Le Ballet Des Accoucheuses” — Jean-Claude Vannier
“The Samarkand Run” — Al Gromer Kahn
“I’m Not Already Dead” — Melodium
“Maybe It’s The End Of Time” — Melodium
“The Climb” — Keegan DeWitt
“Dance Party Ten (Lucky)” — Keegan DeWitt
“Dramamine” — Podington Bear
“Blue” — Podington Bear

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  1. Those patterns from The Grammar of Ornament will look very familiar to anyone who grew up watching ’70s-era Sesame Street, as some of them seem to be the inspiration for the patterns in the middle section of the One-to-Twenty Raga animation (numerous copies of which are on YouTube, for example this one: ), which features numerous ornate and beautiful quatrefoil designs.

  2. There is another place where the quatrefoil shows up: on the tops of the hats of Marine Corps officers. Supposedly it was put there so Marine Corps snipers in the rigging of sailing ships would know who not to shoot at, and even if it is not true I still like the story.

  3. I started listening first and wanted to see – I got the email and now I understand – I will go back to the podcast to finish – thanks for being so awesome!

  4. J. Pierce

    This was a great episode! I think part of the reason this form became so common in the pre-industrial age that was sort of missed is that this form, while sometimes difficult to create, as your guest/office mate alluded to, is quite easy to lay out; particularly for the geometry-based, dividers and straight-edge style of design that predates a more numerical-based type of work.

    Author George Walker has been writing a lot recently (including a recent book with Jim Tolpin) about the ideas of proportion and geometric-based design as opposed to numerical work, but largely from the smaller, furniture-builders perspective, although he mentions a lot of historical literature on the architecture side of things, (which is where traditional furniture design often evolved from) Spending an afternoon making constructions and proportions with dividers and straight edges was enlightening as a craftsperson, and quite delightful. I feel like there’s some sort of nugget in the idea of this that would make something really neat for 99PI, just no idea how you make geometry work on the radio . ..

  5. If it’s what I think it is, I really appreciate the Portlandia reference– paraphrasing from the Introduction from “The Grammar of Ornament,” “don’t just put a bird on it.” Such a nice, low-key reference. Thanks for that.

  6. Great Episode! Just discovered you guys today, and I’ve already listened to 10 of them. Very entertaining and informative.

  7. TruckTruck

    Anyone have clues about what a red quatrefoil pin with the number 28 in the middle of it is from?

  8. Tom from Calif.

    I was going to comment way back when it aired, but that week my 3 year old daughter grabbed one of the shapes from her Melissa & Doug play set and asked me it’s name was. I kid you not, it was the quatrefoil and I only knew what it was because I had just heard the episode. She already knew the other ones and just like didn’t know what the quatrefoil was. True story!

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