Egypt's Long Aesthetic Influence


Satin White Art Deco Ceramic Vase with Pinnate Palm Fronds (LEO Design)


Designers are constantly searching for inspiration. In truth, completely novel design is rare (and, in fact, often overrated).  Throughout human history, most design (including good design) has been an adaptation of an earlier idea, object or aesthetic.  Ancient Egyptian design has been an evergreen source of inspiration for Western artists and designers for at least 200 years.

Napoleon Bonaparte, before he crowned himself Emperor of France (and Italy, and Germany), lead an army to Egypt (1798-1801).  His intention was to foil the British (whom he could not defeat at sea) by blocking their Egyptian route to India (and its lucrative trade).  Additionally, France sought to "claim" Egypt as a French colonial possession.  In short order, Napoleon was defeated and sent home.  But, before he left, he uncovered and documented a mind-blowing treasure trove of rich and beautiful design from Egyptian antiquity.  One of his officers also discovered the Rosetta Stone (being used as a block of building material) which allowed "modern" scholars to decipher the lost language of Egyptian hieroglyphics.  When the French were sent-away, the Brits grabbed the Rosetta Stone and it has been displayed at the British Museum (mostly) ever since.

For all his faults, Napoleon did appreciate good and grand design.  Accompanying him on his campaign were artists who busily sketched the buildings, art and artifacts—all of which were eventually published as folios called Description de l'Égypt (1809, re-published 1830).  These images had an enormous impact on the design whims of the Western World.  The Empire ("Ahmm-peer") Design of the time—architecture, furniture, jewelry, dress and home furnishings—was highly-influenced by the exciting Egyptian aesthetic.  When the Rosetta Stone was translated in 1822 (after the world had been on waiting on tenterhooks), Egyptian Mania was given another good spin.

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, an Egyptian Revival design movement came shortly after the Civil War, around 1870—when America was once again feeling an appetite for interesting and exotic aesthetic inspiration.  This "Orientalism" centered principally on Japan, the Middle East, and North Africa (including Egypt).  Grandly decorative "Egyptian Influences" were embraced during this period of rich (over-the-top) design.  As the Twentieth Century approached, and design became more spare, the use of heavy Egyptian aesthetics waned a bit—until King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered in 1922.  The Western craze for all things Egyptian took off, again, this time during the Art Deco movement.

The Art Deco vase above, on reflection, has a light (a very light) Egyptian influence.  "Pinnate" palm fronds reach skyward over an elegantly-shaped vase which reminds me of a stylized Egyptian capital (atop a column).  Of course, cross-cultural adaptation (which some people call "appropriation") always involves a measure of change, perhaps evolution.  Since I believe that few human designs are completely new ideas, I am rarely offended to see that one artist has "lifted" the good idea of an earlier artist or people.  It's been going-on forever; it's part of the Human Condition.  Instead, I tend to view design appropriation as the recognition of someone else's good idea—which likely came from someone else before that.  However, I never confuse such appropriation with authenticity (which is another topic altogether).  "Orientalism," like any other adaptation of a foreign aesthetic, must be viewed as something different from the original, "authentic" design source—an artist's interpretation of someone else's earlier work.

Please click on the photo above to learn more about this handsome vase.


Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well!  Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (

We also can be found in Pittsburgh's historic "Strip District" at Mahla & Co. Antiques ( or in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (

Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only).  917-446-4248