Fine craftsmen have always used a multitude of techniques to imbue their objects with beauty and visual appeal. The inclusion of precious materials, whether gold, silver or gemstones, creates a desirable marker of elegance and wealth. When collecting antiques — whether antique jewelry, furniture or objet d’art — examining the type of decorative motifs included by the artisan can provide insights into the object’s origin, age or intended function. Read on to learn all about motifs and motif designs.
What is a motif?A motif can be described as a recurring pattern, theme or design in an artwork. While this term may seem vague, it serves as a catchall for any sort of imagery — particularly repeating or iconic in nature — that appears on objects, from fine art to antiques. They often incorporate abstract symbols or recognizable objects to enhance the visual appeal of an object. These designs can be applied through paint, inlaid with enamel or carved into wood or stone, and the imagery can vary widely based on the artisan that created an object and the cultural context of production.
Much like the use of repeated symbols in literature, like Herman Melville's famed use of a white whale in Moby Dick, motifs in art are frequently appearing designs that weave a cohesive story. They rise and fall in popularity throughout time, which can give modern collectors and viewers clues into an object’s origin by examining the aesthetic detailing employed by the craftsman.
Types of motifs
Natural motifs seek to replicate the beauty of nature, and flowers have offered artisans and artists throughout history inspiration with their delicate colors and forms. The ubiquity of flowers and their inherent allure makes them a common motif in antiques and jewelry.
Floral motifs can be found in a variety of furniture styles, including Rococo, Victorian, Rococo and Louis XV, where they are used to add decorative touches to chairs, tables, cabinets and other furniture. The hand-painted vitrine above, incorporating stylistic elements associated with the famed English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton, features painted allegorical scenes and is chased with floral and ribbon motifs.
Crafted by Elkington & Co., the silver tea caddy above served as a treasured object for storing the beloved warm beverage in Elkington chose a highly intricate, low-relief chinoiserie motif of peonies with gilt details.
Floral motifs are particularly popular on ceramics, as the delicate nature of a flower parries the fragile and precious qualities of materials like porcelain. Dinner services in the Flora Danica pattern by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory are a particularly apt example of the importance of floral motifs. Based on George Christian Oeder's 1771 publication Flora Danica, an encyclopedia including 3,000 hand-colored copper plate prints depicting every wild plant known to exist in Denmark, the porcelain service features detailed renderings of each and every native flower.
Building on the fascinating history of micromosaics, each piece of the brooch and earring set above is meticulously decorated with a dual motif of florals and traditional geometric mosaic designs, evoking classical Greco-Roman beauty.
Foliate motifs, or decorative designs featuring foliage and plant elements, have been a popular motif in art and design for centuries. Whether in the form of intricate silverware, vibrant glasswork, antique furniture or delicate jewelry, these naturalistic designs continue to captivate and inspire collectors with their timeless beauty and elegance.
In the apex of the Louis XV-style armchairs above, leaves are carved in exquisite detail, with every tendril carefully rendered to create a sense of lifelike movement and texture. This particular type of foliate motif in artworks and antiques is known as scrolling acanthus leaves, where the acanthus motif curl to form a stylized decorative design.
Not merely reserved for furniture, abstracted foliate motifs swirl atop each other to form this vase by René Lalique. Inspired by bowers under greenery and composed of elegant frosted glass, the vase showcases Lalique’s infatuation with natural motifs, including foliage and animals. While still identifiable as a leaf design, the motif’s repetition allows Lalique to build an interesting visual abstraction.
Foliate motifs add a naturalistic and organic touch to jewelry designs, often bringing a sense of movement and fluidity to the piece. Different designs can be rendered in various materials, including gold, silver and precious gemstones, and can range from delicate and intricate filigree work to bold and sculptural designs. The Buccellati necklace above was designed in a classic bacchanalian motif, composed of 18K yellow gold leaves interspersed with bunches of grapes formed from 18K white gold, while the Cartier pin and earring suite takes the form of oak leaves.
Classical and mythological motifs
Classical motifs have been a prominent element in furniture and objets d'art for centuries, reflecting the enduring influence of classical art and design in European culture. These decorative elements, featuring imagery such as mythological figures, architectural motifs and intricate scrollwork, can be found in a wide range of objects, from antique furniture to decorative ceramics. Classical motifs add a sense of grandeur and timelessness to objets d'art, evoking a sense of history and cultural heritage by referencing the glory of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Cabinetmakers and jewelers have long sought to evoke the aesthetic principles of ancient Greece and Rome through references to classical mythology and antiquity. Cherubic motifs and other designs that incorporate mythological figures are a common decorative feature in furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the Italian giltwood mirror above, for example, the artisan has carved a multitude of putti over a ground of foliate motifs, nodding to the motifs of the Classical age. Likewise, the Empire period vitrine references mythological figures of the past — this time, from ancient Egypt. While not specifically referencing Greco-Roman design, the French cabinetmaker would have hoped to evoke the grandeur of antiquity through the decorative motifs selected.
Classical motifs like the Greek key, acanthus leaves, and laurel wreaths were commonly used in Wedgwood pottery. In this Jasperware pot from Wedgwood, the mythological figure of Psyche is depicted in pure white jasper resting gracefully against the pot’s base. Born as a mortal, Psyche's beauty was so great that she rivaled the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, and she was eventually brought to Olympus by Eros, becoming the goddess of the soul. Here, she is surrounded by delicate white floral garlands, displaying Wedgwood’s affinity for classical motifs.
Animal motifsAnimal motifs have been a popular decorative element in art and design for centuries, appearing in a wide range of cultural traditions and artistic styles. Often stylized or abstracted, animal motifs can carry a range of symbolic meanings, depending on the culture and context in which they appear.
Animal motifs were a highly popular element of Art Deco design, which emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. This style was characterized by bold geometric shapes, vibrant colors, and a celebration of the modern age, and animal motifs fit perfectly within this aesthetic. The sleek and stylized forms of animals were frequently used in Art Deco designs, often as decorative elements on furniture, textiles and jewelry. These motifs added a sense of exoticism and glamour to Art Deco pieces, evoking the adventurous spirit of the Jazz Age. The Muller Frères lamps above, composed of lustrous frosted glass, feature peacock motifs that harken to the bird’s rich coloring and associations with elegance.
Parakeets, peacocks and other birds were also a popular subject and motif during the Art Nouveau period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These colorful and lively animal motifs were often featured in the designs of glass artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Émile Gallé. The Ceylan vase above, created by famed French Art Nouveau and Art Deco glassmaker René Lalique, features several of the adorable birds formed in colored frosted glass. Explore our blog to learn more about different types of antique vases and their designs.
From the regal lion to the graceful swan, animal motifs can represent a wide range of meanings and emotions, including strength and beauty. Whether worn for its symbolic meaning or aesthetic appeal, jewelry with animal motifs adds a touch of whimsy and elegance. A masterclass in Art Nouveau jewelry design, the visually arresting glass and enamel Grenouilles necklace above features jade green glass pendants taking the form of whimsical frogs, delicately formed and carved by Lalique’s hand. Similarly, the Art Deco bracelet showcases delicately arranged diamonds that form sparkling white swans and carefully inlaid onyx and enamel to form the black swan motifs. Learn more about different enameling techniques and how they apply to the making of beautiful jewelry.
Abstract and geometric motifs
Both non-representational in their execution, abstract and geometric motifs offer artisans a way to create visually striking creations. Entrancing and visually captivating, these motifs are often subject to convey a sense of order and structure, and can be interpreted in various ways by the viewer.