Winter 2005

Omnivore: Perspective and embellishment

Karen Hsu and Alice Chung of Omnivore use ornament to add meaning to a client brief

‘A lot of our work is based on pushing around someone else’s words. And so pattern and ornament becomes a way in which we can add our own voice,’ says Karen Hsu, one half of the New York-based design partnership, Omnivore. The other half, Alice Chung, continues the thought: ‘It’s a form of non-verbal narrative,’ she says. ‘A way to interpret what we get from the client, add meaning, and create a path for the viewer that includes discovery and surprise.’ Traditionally, many decorative patterns have contained meanings – both symbolic and narrative. By tapping into this tradition, the partners of Omnivore – who met while working together at the New York design firm 2x4 – feel that they are connecting in some way to a longer history of pattern-making.

They also feel connected to the feminine aspects of the history of ornamentation and patterning. ‘Making patterns for wallpaper, fabric, and china are associated with what is called “women’s work”,’ state Omnivore. Instead of using paintbrushes, Omnivore’s tool is the computer – and specifically Illustrator.

‘The computer allows for a different level of perfection,’ they say. But it’s also about non-perfection, and this balance between rationality and intuition is one that the designers are sensitive to. ‘It’s an emotional creation,’ says Hsu, ‘an organic, playful and expressive thing – that has to have a functional repeat and be able to be manufactured.’ Producing a pattern that repeats is a mathematical process. Omnivore’s concern, however, is to reduce the rigidity of a tiled repeat, and to ‘make it more playful’. A black-and-white floral wallpaper design they are creating for the Brooklyn design store Future Perfect, repeats in a functional way but how it fits together is well concealed. The wall graphics they created for the ‘Commodification of Buddhism’ exhibition at the Bronx Museum is what they call ‘a pretty rigid repeat’, because the wall is built up from one poster repeated and wheat-pasted but, the designers say, ‘because of the density, what’s going on within the pattern and the way in which the repeat creates a bigger pattern than the individual tile of the poster, the overall effect camouflages the original repeat.’ In another instance, the wall mural Hsu created for the Prada store while she worked at 2x4, doesn’t actually have a repeat. Here she implied a repeat so it would read as wallpaper.

Both Chung and Hsu trace their interest in patterns to their roots in Asian culture, where textiles, packaging and architecture are highly decorative. ‘I remember the first time I went to Taiwan,’ says Hsu. ‘The surface of every building was covered in some kind of material pattern. There was texture on everything.’

The duo were also influenced by the things that surrounded them while growing up in the States. In Hsu’s family home it was ‘the totally wacky wallpaper’ and ‘black lacquer furniture with ornate, mother-of-pearl inlay.’ Other things Hsu loved growing up include, ‘Spirographs, unicorn posters that used ornate Celtic or medieval-inspired arabesques, hanging out in fabric shops and Super Mario Brothers games and cartoons for the way in which the backgrounds repeat as they move horizontally.’ Hsu’s interest first found expression in her design in 1998 when she moved to New York into a 250-square-foot studio apartment and began to design fantasy wallpapers to relieve the oppression of her living space. Next came the ‘dream project’ of designing a block-long patterned wall mural for Prada, working with Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA. Since then Hsu and Chung have tried to incorporate pattern in as much of their work as possible, all the while adding to a series of personal wallpapers that include traces of their histories and interests. One sugar-almond hued confection contains both the designers’ pets, including Chula, who is depicted peeing because ‘he had separation anxiety at the time.’ Another wallpaper contains the traces of Hsu’s personal history – images of buildings and landscapes from the places she grew up and studied in, and even her Volkswagen Jetta.

Working with ornamentation and pattern blurs the line between design and illustration. Omnivore enjoy the fact that they are designing their ‘whole palette’ of tools. Everything can be self-generated: ‘In some ways we feel like a self-sufficient farmers growing our own food.’ In Omnivore’s opinion, ‘the visual environment we’re in right now is baroque-friendly and represents a swing back to something more dense, where things aren’t so stripped away.’ Hsu has ‘always loved chandeliers and funky ornamental type’, so in some ways, she says, ‘it’s just a case of good timing.’