How Flora Danica Still Inspires Designers Today

Flora Danica-- the systematic documentation of wild plants and flowers that took place in 18th century Denmark-- was a major milestone in European botany. Today, many of the plants chronicled and their specific patterns of display continue to inform gardens, historic homes, and fashion.

On paper, Flora Danica— a comprehensive atlas of botany that chronicles plants discovered in Denmark between 1761 and 1883– doesn’t exactly read like an artifact that would excite the senses. But this byproduct of the Age of Enlightenment has had powerful reverberations within the design community writ large, going and in and out of fashion as trends do for the better part of the last three centuries.

In the course of that time, creative touchstones like historicism and maximalism (think: Wall & Deco’s gorgeous flower wallpaper or Liberty London’s botanically-inspired fabrics) have become all the rage among design aficionados, especially those interested in vintage detailing or the Victorian era.

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Flowers have seemingly always played a role in influencing gardens, historic homes, textiles, upholstery, pottery, and fashion, but the specific pattern of display in Flora Danica combines both archival botany and art into a single medium designed to educate and inspire. Before Flora Danica, people had never before seen plants displayed as a one-dimensional artistic medium, let alone a pattern.

In Flora Danica, equal emphasis was placed on the beauty of the rose, with it’s sensuous curves and rich color, and the decidedly more comely thistle, which was regarded with equal prestige. It didn’t matter if a plant was a flower or a weird tuber– all aspects of plant life were equally worth of display.

The entire catalog of Flora Danica consists of 3,240 copper engraved plates that represent a major milestone of European Botany and a touchstone of scientific discovery more broadly: it was the first catalog of plants as society then knew them. Roots, stems, shoots, and all.

Designers for major brands are indebted to this historical archive whether they recognize it or not.

Flora Danica was originally proposed by G.C. Oeder, a botany professor at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden, who envisioned the archive as a way to chronicle the specific bryophtes (non-vascular land plants like mosses), lichens, and fungi native to Denmark. The project was later expanded to include Norwegian and Swedish plants from across Scandinavia, and for this reason it took 123 years to complete (as several territorial cessations took place during this period).

Today, it is said that a table laid with Flora Danica porcelain is “fit for royalty”— and while a quick glance at the traditional china patterns that the botanical engravings inspired might transmute a certain grandmotherly kitsch, further inspection reveals the breathtaking allure. Fine china endures as a symbol of luxury decor because of its exquisite craftsmanship. Despite its potentially staid, Old World implications, the detail and fine curves of each piece inspired modern textile and wallpaper design– and pretty much everything that Etro, Gucci, and Erdem have ever put out.

Designers for major brands are indebted to this historical archive whether they recognize it or not. “Floral patterns” would never have existed had it not been for the original archive that pioneered their display and demonstrated that plants by themselves could be beautiful works of art– the muse of a painting, the star of a culinary experience, or the basis of a pattern.

Today, the fine bone china served at the Historical Royal Palaces in London harkens to the motifs first detailed in Flora Danica, as do all present day paisley prints (Vera Bradley bags and the like).

Contemporary street art nods at the way Flora Danica plants are shaded to create the illusion of depth, and modern botanical illustrators borrow directly from this tradition, emphasizing the beauty of all parts of the plant– even the roots below the surface.

For those who are interested in plants and botanical design, Flora Danica is informative and illuminating. While subsequent discoveries have since rendered this archive of botanical species incomplete, Flora Danica remains a beautiful tome to the past: an archive that preserves history and represents the future at the same time.

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