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Credit: Jess Franks

This Is Apartment Therapy’s 2021 Pattern of the Year

published Dec 8, 2020
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Over the past nine months, homes have transformed into do-it-all dwellings that are, depending on the time of day and the people living there, an office, remote classroom, fitness studio, dining hall, hangout spot, and more. Perhaps the one thing uniting anyone who is still fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads is the desire for comfort, to be surrounded by things that make you feel at ease. Of course, comfort looks and feels different for everybody. If I had to point to an overarching trend that almost every designer, brand, and tastemaker might be on board with, though—one motif that constantly bubbled up to the forefront as the world as we knew it changed maybe forever—it’d have to be the prevalence and importance of biophilic forms, aka anything found in nature.

Biophilia, which has a Greek etymology and translates to “love of life,” refers to a concept expounded upon by several 20th century thinkers, perhaps most notably the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson. In his 1984 book “Biophilia,” Wilson documented what he identified as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life,” which in turn leads to a longing for and affinity with nature. A biophilic approach has been present in architecture for a long time, so it makes sense that it would also infiltrate other areas of design.

In a year where it didn’t feel safe to do much outside of the home, the great outdoors was the best refuge and the number-one decorating inspiration. There’s every reason to believe this fascination with flora and fauna will continue well into 2021. That’s why we (and YOU… but more on that later) are declaring our third annual pattern of the year “Wander,” a meandering, free-flowing biophilic leaf motif designed by New England-based artist Jess Franks and defined by its rhythmic, overlapping hand-painted brushstrokes.

Mother nature is an age-old trope in art and design (just think of Impressionist landscapes or the work of the Hudson River School), but we’ve been looking to the natural world as inspiration for centuries, and that’s exactly what makes this pattern feel so fresh and so familiar. Tension gives “Wander” energy: The color palette is serene, but the brushwork is joyous; it’s a tangle of foliage, and yet, you can see individual fern leaves, branches, and tiny flowers emerge. It’s vaguely floral, but it’s no shrinking violet. “Wander” doesn’t whisper, and while this may not be the grassy green rebirth you’re used to seeing every spring, it’s alive, and it’s beautiful.

Credit: Jess Franks

How Did We Pick This Pattern of the Year?

To say that 2020 has been a different sort of year would be an understatement. In previous years, we’d attend industry trade shows, furniture fairs, and press previews to track trends in order to tease out the commonalities. These events didn’t really happen this year (at least not in person), so we had to dive deeper than ever before into platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and even our own house tours to extrapolate what happened this year in home design. In doing so, we narrowed down our ideas for the Pattern of the Year to two major themes: Biophilic Beauty and Classic Redux.

On the one hand, it’d have been very hard to ignore the pull of biophilic beauty. Natural light is one of the most sought-after things in a dwelling, and floral and frond patterns have been present in decor for hundreds of years and are still going strong, whether used on wallpaper or textiles.

On the other hand, the other thread running through the design world this year was the resurgence of classical architecture and references to antiquity. Pedestals, columns, fluting, arches, and decorative busts started popping up in home decor collections. When the outside world is a bit chaotic, it seems only fitting to seek out a style that’s rooted in order and control, and that’s exactly what the proportion, symmetry, and simplicity of classical and neoclassical design offers.

As part of this revival, the checkerboard came on strong again in decorative applications, chief among them flooring—and not just because of the popularity of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” and the renewed interest in chess and other low-fi board games. This time around though, the checkerboard—and, really, classical style on the whole—is certainly a bit more malleable, both in terms of how it’s executed and the juxtaposition of what it’s paired with.

Credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom

We began pinning a ton of inspiration to Pinterest boards for each of these pattern ideas, and then we posted an Instagram Story poll to help us decide things like the scale and color of our final wining pattern.

As is customary with our Pattern of the Year process, we then recruited a small panel of designers and industry insiders to weigh in on each trend, and something strange happened. Unlike other years, our panel was split right down the middle. Dayna Isom Johnson, trend expert at Etsy, was Team Biophilic. “This past year has been filled with plenty of uncertainty, and shoppers are finding ways to ground themselves by connecting with nature as much as possible,” she said. “I expect biophilic design to continue to grow in 2021, with lush greenery, organic shapes, and calming colors increasingly incorporated into home decor.”

Tariq Dixon, founder of New York-based design studio TRNK, gravitated more towards the Classic Redux direction. “I think the restraint and simplicity of geometric motifs will be appealing heading into the new year,” Dixon said. “It has an Art Deco quality that seems resurgent across various design mediums. Personally, I’m also attracted by the formulaic quality of geometry, especially right now. It’s controlled and logical—qualities that can feel a bit sparse these days.”

To get out of this design deadlock, our founder and CEO Maxwell Ryan came up with the perfect solution: Pursue not one, but both, directions and let you (yes, YOU!) vote on the Pattern of the Year for 2021.

How Did We Find Our Two Designers and Create Our Two Patterns?

Even though both pattern design directions are grounded in a sense of comfort and familiarity, we still wanted modern takes that would push these trends forward. We spotted a series of modern checkerboard screen-printed goods designer Katherine Plumb of Studio KJP had made on Pinterest and felt compelled to go straight to her for our Classic Redux pattern. She had clearly been working with this motif for a while, and we couldn’t wait to see what she’d do with our design brief.

Drawing a little bit of inspiration from artists like Ellsworth Kelly and the Albers, Plumb started with three designs: a rigid grid-like structure, a more gingham-esque structure, and a very abstract checkerboard structure with smaller checkerboards tiled into it. We loved this last, almost quilt-like, pattern and told Plumb to lean into her signature warping and quirky pastel color palette to come up with this bold pattern she called “To Fit and Flow.”

“It was never an option to do a basic check pattern because then anyone could’ve done it,” says Plumb. “I know this design was maybe a little ‘busy’ for people, since the basic checkerboard is a pretty minimalist pattern, but I like how it’s made up of different styles of checks and how each individual square flows from one to the next.”

Color plays a strong role in Plumb’s design, too. “I wanted the green to be the base and then to place the pops of pinks, purple, beige, and blue here and there to balance it out,” says Plumb. Curiously enough, it’s this prevalence of green that ties Plumb’s design to what artist Jess Franks ultimately created for the Biophilic Beauty design direction.

Credit: Jess Franks

Pinterest, too, led us to the vibrant, naturalist work of Franks, whose style perfectly straddles the line between abstraction and realism. Her creative process usually starts with hiking, which is something she grew up doing and loves deeply. “My senses absorb the colors and layers and compositions and atmosphere, and my phone usually captures a few pictures along the way, too,” Franks says. “When I get back to my studio, I sometimes use reference photos, but the colors and brushwork come from those sensory memories.”

Credit: Jess Franks

Franks knew she wanted to combine some of her favorite plant shapes into a pattern that “felt like you were actually out there exploring the woods yourself.” To that end, she painted different natural elements, from flowers and leaves to branches, large on multiple canvases (shown above and below). “By the end, I was surrounded,” she said. “I channeled that sense when I scanned and placed each element into the final pattern.”

Credit: Jess Franks

Indeed, Franks’ final pattern, “Wander,” has an immersive quality because it has no clear focal point, yet is so deftly layered—tangled, even, as the woods can often be—which creates a sense of dimensionality, depth, and a design the eye can truly get lost in. “Patterns by nature have a clean repetition to them,” says Frank. “So I like how that added disorder gives it a more organic feel.”

Credit: Courtesy of Jess Franks

The Big Vote and the Big Reveal

We loved both of these patterns so much that we turned to our almost three million Instagram followers to make the final call with a story poll. “Wander” ultimately edged out “To Fit and Flow” to become the 2021 Pattern of the Year.

Credit: Jess Franks

Franks’ take on a biophilic pattern feels like a fusion between past and present—perhaps an addendum to the floral fabrics and wallpapers Austrian architect and designer Josef Frank gained recognition for while working with the Swedish company Svenskt Tenn back in the 1930s and 1940s. Inspired by the work of William Morris, Frank—not unlike Franks herself—loved nature and believed incorporating it into interiors created a sense of freedom for homeowners.

Then there’s the palette, which is a departure from typical florals. “Here in New England, it’s very wooded and in the summer very lush,” says Franks. “This color palette came from that moment right at the end of summer/beginning of autumn, when there are still lots of greens, but the autumn colors are just starting to appear as well. It’s a wonderful combination.” The teals, greens, and browns used are not one of a sprightly spring, but nonetheless, they still exude a vividness and warmth that feels appropriate for 2021.

One can’t help but notice the presence of soft, cream-colored negative space in the pattern either. Like Frank’s florals, there’s some room to breathe in “Wander,” even in the tangled wood of Franks’ brushstrokes, and that’s by design. “Being out in the woods, I’m able to breathe deep and amble down a path and just see what I stumble upon next.” Franks sought to create something that captured “the serenity and joy of being out in nature,” and that’s exactly what she did in “Wander.” Viewing the pattern—and getting lost in its meandering nature—can transport you, at least mentally, outside of your indoor environment and into Franks’ “outdoor” world.

How “Wander” Will Look in the Home

Incorporating leafy prints like Franks’ into the home can reinforce the human-nature connection many of us crave, particularly in urban settings. Textiles are a natural fit for this pattern, which can feel immersive on a large item, like a shower curtain, drapery panel, or duvet cover. It’d be easy to imagine seeing “Wander” scaled down on a throw pillow, too, providing a little bit of life, color, and movement on an otherwise neutral sofa.

Credit: Jess Franks

Perhaps Frank himself best described the power of a botanical pattern, whether hanging on walls as artwork or wallpaper or even covering an accent chair. “The monochromatic surface appears uneasy, while prints are calming, and the observer is unwillingly influenced by an underlying slow approach,” Frank famously said. “The richness of decoration cannot be fathomed so quickly.”

It’s precisely this slowing down—this rumination and sensory processing—that we all just might need more of in 2021. Adding a botanical like “Wander,” a biophilic pattern that’s at once both serene and joyous, can provide some sense of an escape, as many of us hunker down into our homes for what may be a long winter and spring. Stay tuned; we’re excited to see just how “Wander” might be able to work its way into your homes and ours this coming year.