Design Vocabulary: Greek Key

First, let me say that I’m a little biased about today’s Design Vocabulary term. I was lucky enough to work in Greece a few years ago and this design motif, although not new to me at the time, now reminds me of the lovely time I had in Athens and of the kind friends I made while I was there. (If you ever have the chance to visit Greece and make friends locally, I highly recommend it.)

Design Form

You may already know this design motif or have seen it around. It is just about as old as they come when you look at design and architecture history. Here is the basic Greek Key pattern, shown in gold, on this beautiful antique bowl:

Image courtesy of the Bristol Blue Glass SW Glass Museum

The Greek Key is defined as a continuous line that frequently doubles back on itself, then reverses course to move forward again. It is believed to come from a geological phenomenon that pops up all over our planet.  This phenomenon is called a “meander”. “Meander”, in modern English, generally means to wonder somewhat aimlessly, but geology defines the word as a river that carves a loop or bend in its path that almost, or sometimes completely, doubles back on itself. Here’s an example of a geological meander in Serbia:

Uvca canyon, Serbia Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Can you see how the Serbian river’s footprint is similar to the Greek Key pattern? There is also a river in modern-day Turkey named the Meander, which is, appropriately, full of meanders:

Meander river course satellite photo. Image courtesy of snailstales.blogspot.com & Google Earth

This river was well-known in ancient Greece as the “Maiandros”, or “Maeander” river, named after a Greek river god who was its supposed patron. Which came first: the river or the name? We may never know for sure, but there are great examples of river meanders to be found all over the world today, such as this one in England…

River Cuckmere, image courtesy of Wikipedia

… this important river delta in the Africa…

Okavango River Delta, Botswana. Image courtesy of travelsfy.com

…this river in Asia…

Songhua River in China. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

…and even our mighty Mississippi. It has meandered extensively over time, as you can see in this map created in a 1944 geological survey:

Alluvial Valley of Missouri and Louisiana, USA. Image courtesy of mouthtosource.org

You can see that this meandering is a worldwide, not-so-unusual river pattern, if you look for it. The “Greek” part of this motif’s term, I believe, comes into the symbolism of this pattern. In Greece, the Greek Key pattern is believed to be an expression of long life or eternity. This makes a lot of sense when you think about how long it might take a river to carve out a geological meander, but the Greek use of the word and pattern is more of a philosophical one.

There is something classical in the motif because it is used to mark eternity. Maybe there is a larger lesson, a “key”, if you will, from the ancient Greeks to be learned about life in this pattern. Go forward in life, look back a little if you have to, but keep moving forward. Greek civilization is still omnipresent in our everyday lives, so they clearly had some timeless ideas.

Design Examples

This historical origin goes a long way to explain why you can find the Greek Key repeated in so many forms and structures of home design over centuries. Like the river meander, the popularity of the motif doubles back on itself and moves forward. Pictured below are just few examples of the Greek Key at use in home design and architecture:

Cornice molding, image courtesy of jadenmouldings.com.au

Antique art glass lampshade and base, image courtesy of jamesdjulia.com

An inlay border of a parquet floor, image courtesy of merchantmart.com

Modern tile border, image courtesy of annsacks.com

Elegant upholstery trim, image courtesy of charlestonmag.com

A 1930′s fireplace mantle, image courtesy of c20fireplaces.co.uk

Decor Mood Board

Do you like the Greek Key pattern? Would you like to find some more? Well, I threw together a little decor mood board to help you find some great sources for you home. You can add a little or a lot of pattern to any room with the Greek Key. Take a look and do a little window shopping…

Where can I buy these items? Just click on the links below to jump right to the retail pages…

1. Handmade in America, this elegant throw pillow cover is only $16.95, on Etsy

2. Serve up something delicious from the Wedgwood Dynasty collection, with pieces starting at $20, from Wedgwood

3. Add some Art Deco glamour with this Glossy Black Greek Key Mirror, $249, from Shades of Light

4. One of these 50 x 70- inch knit throws would look great on the end of a bed or chair, $175, at Labrazel Home

5.  Sleek black lamp with a modern Greek Key shade, available in several color options, $99, at Lamps Plus

6. Use the Greek Key pattern as a frame from your bedding with this modern metal sofa daybed, available in two finishes for only $314, from Amazon

7. Add some subtle depth to your wall with this beautiful taupe wallpaper, $250, by style maker Jonathan Adler

So what do you think of the Greek Key motif? Have you noticed it around in stores or other decor sources? Is it fresh and modern, old and traditional, transitional? Do you love it, hate it or meh? Share your opinions in a comment. All opinions and conversation are welcome!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy some of the other post in my Design Vocabulary series. You can browse around and read from the complete list by clicking right here.

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Posted on June 15, 2012, in Decor, Design Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve seen this pattern before but had no idea it was based on a river shape. I’ve seen similar natural patterns from airplanes, but the ancient Greeks didn’t have those to use in their designs. Kind of amazing!

    • You’re right, Janice. It is rather amazing how any maps were made for several millenia without photographic, aeronautical or satellite technology. The idea of seeing the larger picture was a really big idea!

  2. What a cool post!! I never knew that about Greek Key… Thanks so much for featuring my pillow! :)

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