The Greek Fret

When we think of Ancient Greek ornament we probably imagine the Greek fret – also known as a meander – which is that continuous line formed into an angular wave pattern. The simple pattern makes an appearance on everything from buildings to vases, and is seen as a signature style of Ancient Greek decorative art. Modern designers tasked with designing a product in the style of Ancient Greece inevitably use the fret in their work, and oftentimes don’t go much further than that. This is a shame because what essentially happens is that all the great varieties of Greek decoration and ornaments are reduced to a single, primitive type. The modern designer assumes that they’ve managed to extract the essence of Ancient Greek art by reducing it to a single pattern, but what they really are doing is greatly degrading a style that goes much much further this simple pattern.

Real Greek art consists of essentially two elements: the illustrative part where figures and scenes from ancient myths are depicted, and the decorative part where the former is supported and enriched with the use of ornaments. When we focus on the fret we ignore the sculptures and illustrations altogether and concern ourselves merely with the decorative part, but even then, we ignore the vast amount of styles and variations employed there, from the smooth waves and geometric motifs to the elegant anthemions and the depictions of animal forms. The fret is merely one of the most primitive of those styles, and while it works well when used to separate a work into parts or to support a particular feature, it is in no way representative of the whole style.

The reason for the degradation is that the modern designer thinks in small units of technique and pattern, and so naturally proceeds to reduce styles to their essentials, all the while remaining blind to the fact that what they’re throwing aside is just as important, if not more, than what they end up keeping. But if you really wanted to create Ancient Greek art today, it would not do to imitate a couple of patterns and call it a day. No, to truly re-create that style you would have to take on the state of mind of the craftsman of those times. Only when you do this and take on not only the skill to reproduce the techniques, but also the affections and feeling of the craftsman of that age, will you be able to create art that is truly in spirit with the original. Remember that something like the fret pattern was never a requirement for the Greek craftsman because what they wanted to do was not recreate a style for the sake of recreating a style, but to create something beautiful and worthy, and so they applied all of their talents, skill and judgement into creating art that they wished the world to have.

Now, if you can truly do the above, and design with feeling and not just the brain or the blueprint, then you will probably end up not making the Greek fret at all, and probably nothing to do with Greece altogether. What you will end up creating is what reflects your affections and your culture, because those are the things that matter to us most, not the pattern for its own sake, but a style or combination of styles that embodies our feelings and symbolizes things important to us and our society. Unfortunately, many modern designers won’t be able to do this for two reasons. The first is that they are trained and learn to recreate patterns, not search for that underlying thing that these patterns are meant to express in the first place. The second reason is that it is difficult to imagine what style could embody today’s cultural values because today’s Western culture does not possess very many of those. The latter point is also why today’s designers are obsessed with creating minimal, functional products. Because the cultural element is missing a good designer focuses on making the optimal product in itself, free from decoration and style because the underlying idea and feeling that gives birth to meaningful style is missing.

What makes a designer good is not their arsenal of skills and tricks, nor the varied knowledge of related skills they may possess, but their spirit and passion to create something good, whichever way they define what “good” is. A good craftsman in Ancient Greece did not copy the fret, they created their own patterns as they saw fit. The patterns were an expression of their feelings and their desire to create something beautiful and worthy, and they let their imagination take over as they wove color and line together into something intricate and attractive. In the same way, a good modern designer focuses on creating products that are perfect in their simplicity. Their desire is to reach that beauty of a simple and elegant solution. Whether the lack of style is desired or not is a different question, my point here is that it is the love for their craft that makes a designer good, for it is only through that deep desire to create something worthy will they have the drive to achieve the necessary level of skill and put in the necessary number of hours to create a superior product, not merely an imitation or an application of a few techniques that anyone with a little competence could achieve.

August 2012