The Most Popular Interior Design Motifs and their Symbolic Meaning

We find symbols everywhere and some are more understandable than others.  We know the instant we see a symbol if we understand it’s meaning without even thinking about it.  Consider this washroom sign for instance.



Now consider the same meaning for these signs.

unusual washroom signs

Yes, it’s funny, but you are not as quick to recongnize it’s meaning.

Over the years I’ve just assumed most people are aware of the common symbolic meaning behind most motifs and patterns used when decorating. Most motifs are used in fabrics, tiles, trim and furnishings which have been reinvented from historical use.

Most of the motifs below could possibly be found in one room, but it’s unlikely.  That would be a real hodge podge of heavy duty symbolic pattern. Based on it’s symbolism you may have a bias against the Fleur de Lis for instance and refuse to have anything to do with it in your home.  But, that’s not what we are talking about here. The main thing to avoid is clashing the symbolic nature of a design element and it’s repetitive motif against another. For instance it’s perfectly acceptable to have Egg-and-Dart moulding, a thistle flower on a toss cushion and an area rug with a greek key border. Avoid having too many animal inspired design elements or your decor may resemble a zoo. Don’t place more than two repetitive architectural elements in a room. For instance avoid Greek Key around the fireplace box, Egg-and-Dart moulding and a quatrefoil shaped windows unless you’re trying to mimic a cathedral. Some types of motifs are so steeped in tradition that they will instantly time travel you and your guests to another century or transport you to another destination.  Moderation and balance is key when decorating with symbolic motifs.

So, if you’re not sure about the symbolic meaning and how they are used in our contemporary settings here are the top ten.

10. The pineapple is the universal symbol for hospitality which has extended itself as a form of saying “Welcome”. Ever notice how many hotels, especially in western Europe and the Caribbean  use this symbol? The pineapple commonly appears as door knockers and welcome mats.  The origins of the symbolic pineapple are said to go back to Christopher Columbus who first brought back the prized fruit from the Caribbean to Spain. Giving pineapples as a hostess gift was so revered that people tried growing them everywhere they could. Pineapples require very rich soil and it was found that the Azores grew the tastiest and larger pineapples than anywhere in the Caribbean. Hence Europe became the fastest growing market for the yellow fruit. The pineapple pattern is making it’s rounds again as a popular print too.


9. The Fleur de Lis has had many interpretations likely from as early as Babylon. The unequivocally French symbol, which, translated, means “flower of the lily,” took hold in the 12th century when the French monarchy adopted it.  Traditionally, it has been used to represent French Royalty, and it is said to signify perfection, light, and life.

8. The Bumble Bee as depicted in modern day has been long associated with Napoleon because he selected the bee as a means to distance himself from previous serving French monarchs’ Fleur De Lis symbol. Many have speculated the reason for it’s choosing but for his armies the bee became symbolic of hard work and community which Napoleon had campaigned on. The Napoleonic bee is always shown viewed from above, guilded with gold and with it’s wings spread out and often within a laurel wreath.


7. Thistle flower or as some of us refer to it as a weed is the Scottish national emblem. Hardy, yes.  Beautiful?  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It stands along the Scottish motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit,” roughly translated “no one harms me without punishment.” The Thistle was reborn during the Arts and Crafts period by one of the leaders of the movement – William Morris. His original floral inspired wallpapers and fabrics can still be purchased today through his family run estate.

6. Egg and Dart is a classical ornamental design often carved in wood, stone, or plaster quarter-round ovolo mouldings, consisting of an egg-shaped object alternating with an element shaped like an arrow, anchor or dart. I think one of the reasons it’s lived on and still popular today is because of it’s traditional but simple, elegant repeat. The egg-and-dart motif is still seen mostly in wood carving and inlay.

5. Greek Key is a decorative border constructed from a continuous line, shaped into a repeated motif. The Greek Key design is one of the most significant symbols in ancient Greece. The motif is a decorative element in Greek and Roman stone work and it is used to present day. The Greek Key motif symbol was very important in Greece because it identified infinity, unity, bonds of friendship, of love and devotion. It was common to give the motif or a representation of it as a form of a marriage gift due to it’s symbolism. Today we like it’s contemporary squared lines for it’s simplicity and can find the partial elements of the Greek key in furniture, wall decor and flooring related materials.


4. Peacock and Peacock feathers.  Peacocks replace their feathers annually.  The ancients believed a dead peacock’s flesh did not decay, these proud birds and their feathers have long symbolized renewal and immortality. Perhaps a reason for some cultures to regard the peacock feather as symbolic of the Guru. Though popular for centuries, peacock feathers became a mainstay motif in the Art Nouveau era, which followed the Arts and Crafts movement circa 1910. We often refer to the saying, “proud as a peacock”. Obvisouly the idea of pride and beauty come into play when refering to it’s symbolism.

3. Elephants have been the subject of various cultural depictions in popular culture, mythology and symbolism. They are revered for their power and prowess. In our society we think of elephants as having good memories, which has been scientifically proven and through commercial popularity we often refer to “the elephant in the room”.  Elephants have gained our respect and imagination because of it’s unaggressive nature while still being able to move and remove real and perceived obstacles.


2. The shape of the quatrefoil can be found in many places, such as in home decor, in architecture, and on churches or buildings. It can also be found in jewelry and as symbols of organizations. Since it is easy to divide a quatrefoil into equal portions or into other shapes, it has also come to symbolize harmony, symmetry, and proportion. The quatrefoil resembles a four leaf clover, often regarded as a source of good luck to whomever finds one.

1. Chinese knot  – meaning never ending. The Mystic Knot is one of the most often used symbols of Feng Shui. Being a combination of six times the infinity symbol, this feng shui knot symbolizes a long and happy life full of good fortune. Mystic knot is sometimes referred to as the endless knot, because it looks like it swallows its own tail. Although not a popular decorative motif in North America other European and Asia countries have and continue to use it as part of their home decor. Of course many parts of North America have adopted the Feng Shui belief which share many of the good design disciplines of interior design.

There are many more historical motifs and patterns but I have mentioned some of the most popular today. As you can imagine overly mixing these patterns and motifs may not be a good idea. In addition some icons may have a symbolic meaning you might not want to convey while others you would proudly display.

Did you have a favorite?  Did a motif have a surprising symbolism?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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8 thoughts on “The Most Popular Interior Design Motifs and their Symbolic Meaning

  1. Oh how interesting! I liked your examples too and I’ll definitely remember to not use any of them together in one room. Thanks and I have one more for you – the artichoke, do you know what that one means?

  2. So interesting. I love learning about the original origins of things, especially related to design and architecture! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • My pleasure. I love interior design (obviously!) and love to learn about some of the historical significance to our current decorative uses. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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