Symbolic Meaning of Color in Native American Design


Note: this is a partnered post and consideration was received for its publication. CC-licensed image by Al_HikesAZ.

Since Native American textiles and pattern design are a strong influence on Prairie and American Craftsman design, we thought you might enjoy this:

If you are looking to do a design project in your home, you may be considering doing a Native American theme. For several years this type of décor has been in great demand but oddly, many homeowners aren’t aware of the fact that many of the facets of this particular style are actually mired in symbolism. Whereas other types of décor use color as an aesthetic feature, in Native American culture color means something – it is symbolic of some deeper spiritual meaning. Before finalizing your plans to remodel one or more rooms in your home, you might like to know a little bit about what color meant to these early, and very spiritual people.

Colors Vary by Nation

Sometimes a ‘nation’ is referred to as a ‘tribe’ and this varies from region to region and among tribes as well. One thing to be aware of when designing Native American décor is that colors meant different things to different nations. Therefore, if you are using a design specific to a particular tribe, it would be important to factor in the colors you are going to use. Dream catchers are an example of a craft you might want to undertake yourself, but if parts of the room are done in Cherokee fashion, for example, you would want to pay special attention to colors they found sacred.

To the Hopi tribe, the color blue signified the most sacred of all colors so that might be something you would want to use. If you are thinking of making a dream catcher, you can find an awesome guide on how to make a dream catcher by following this link. Just remember to keep colors in mind if you are looking for an authentic Native American piece of art.

The Meaning behind Some Common Colors

As mentioned, each tribe ascribes meaning to specific colors and if you are going for a particular look within one of the variants of Native American culture, you would want to ascertain that you have colors in keeping with their traditions. Even so, there are some colors that have a universal meaning. Following is a compilation of colors and the most common meanings attached to them.

  • White – death, winter
  • Black – male, night, death, disease or sickness
  • Red – blood, wounds, sunset, thunderstorms, war
  • Blue – female, moon, water, sky, sadness
  • Green – earth, summer, life, rain
  • Yellow – morning, day, sunlight

Although not all tribes (nations) attribute the exact same significance to these colors, these are the most common among the 562 tribes recognized today as genuine Native American nations.

The point in understanding colors as they pertain to specific meanings or concepts is to make sure you are creating a design that is authentic. Many tribes in today’s world believe that their way of life has been distorted because of misuse of their traditions. So that there is no misunderstanding when it comes to having respect for a culture different from our own, it is really important to pay special attention to the significance they have attached to each and every color. In so doing, you will be honoring their culture while designing a new look for your home – the best of both worlds.

Holiday Greetings & a short hiatus; Russ Billington coloring page

I will soon be taking a few days off to fly to Korea to bring back my adopted daughter, Olivia Mi-Yeon, so you will see a bit of a blank here for a few days. I will be having a very exciting holiday break, and I hope yours will also be happy & warm.

For your own children and those who are children at heart, our friend Russ Billington offers a letter to santa / coloring page. The artwork was originally created by Will Bradley in 1899 as cover art (in full color) for St. Nicholas magazine.

Arts & Crafts wallpaper today

Morris_wallpaperminor updates to this article, originally from Hewn & Hammered in 2004:

People often think of the interior of Arts & Crafts period homes as austere, minimilist spaces devoid of pattern. They envision tasteful rich woods and plain walls with only a jewel tone paint shade as a foil. There may have been some interiors like that, but the height of the Arts and Crafts movement coincided with the height of Victorian decorating. Rather than homes and design books of the period only embracing one or the other style, what often occurred was a blending of the two styles. One of the finest examples of graphic art to come out of this period were the many rich and detailed wallpaper designs.

When you think of Arts & Crafts designs it is the iconic images that often come to mind. From the famous Morris chrysanthemums, pomegranates, daisies and marigolds to Frank Lloyd Wright's hollyhocks and branch borders, these patterns from nature figure prominently in all manner of Arts & Crafts design. Morris was said to have considered wallpaper a 'medium of communication' and created over 144 distinctive textile designs that were reproduced in several different mediums such as textiles, wall coverings and carpets. Historically, the actual creation Arts and Crafts period wallpaper was a painstakingly difficult and involved process. Long sheets of paper were rolled out on great tables and dozens of artisans using a primitive silkscreening process layered on paint in highly detailed repetitive patterns. This made the wallpaper prohibitively expensive for the average decorator. But when you have a great room sometimes painting techniques and stencilwork just won't cut it; they just can't give that 'wow' factor - that's when it's time to look to wallpapers.

From a ceiling frieze to a feature wall to a room done completely in a bold pattern to mimic your favourite period estate, wallpapers is what you are looking for. But, where do you find them? Aren't they prohibitively expensive?

Not necessarily. The advent of laser printing techniques and computer-aided design have changed all of that, and as a result prices have come down so mere mortal restorers and decorators can work with the medium and get the same stunning effect. Currently, several companies are recreating these intricate designs.

A local favourite and one of the few A&C suppliers on the East Coast, J.R.. Burrows & Company and Burrows Studio of Rockland MA consider themselves historical design merchants. The Burrows Studio, a division of J.R. Burrows & Co., produces and recreates designs that are representative of the Aesthetic and the early Anglo-American Arts & Crafts movements. The wallpaper designs are mainly English in origin, as the English A&C movement was - and continues to be - highly influential in New England. There are graphic samples of the papers as well as a provenance and a detailed description of each style on their extensive website.

Heading out to the west coast one of the finer manufacturers is Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers. As recently as 2000, Bradbury and Bradbury began using computers to print their beautiful Arts & Crafts friezes, and they are gorgeous, lush, rich (okay, okay, I know - enough adjectives, but I can't help it!) full of color and bold, beautiful designs.  The site is unique in that designs are grouped by color theme. Choose an olive room and the site will show how to coordinate various Bradbury designs into a single cohesive look. You can view it all on the site or order a catalog to peruse with a good cup of tea in your Morris chair.

Last stop is way up north in Canada at Charles Rupert Designs Ltd., dedicated to supplying "splendid items for the traditional home and garden." Not only do they have all the paper patterns you have been dreaming of, but they have the fabrics to match. One of their great features is a complete wallpaper and fabric sample cutting service which will allow you to see what you envision before you commit. Everything they sell is top quality and they strive to use traditional natural materials wherever possible, shunning plastic, vinyl and other synthetics.

Thanks to Jo Horner of the always entertaining and often very touching Counting Sheep for this wonderful article!

Ford Craftsman Studios' beautiful WPA prints

Zion_poster_framed_600_tall We mentioned this earlier, but David Ford of Ford Craftsman Studios recently wrote to show us the new, redrawn & recolored WPA posters he's now selling. They're beautiful! Framed by Dard Hunter, they're beautiful pieces of art and a perfect complement to any historic bungalow. If your local Arts & Crafts home shop doesn't carry FCS items, let them know that they should! In addition to these posters, David's firm sells some beautiful Arts & Crafts embroidery items - they just bought a new commercial embroidery machine that has a larger embroider area than any other, and has customized it to handle the heavy thread, giant needles, and oversized satin stitches that are the signature of their work. They can now produce pillows and runners up to 22 inches wide.

Russ Billington: new prints & watercolors

8823b1d9_2 Our friend, artist Russ Billington, dropped us a line to note that some of his recent work can now be seen on the Saatchi Gallery website. Russ, a pen-and-ink Craftsman who draws his originals on 100% cotton Arches paper and paints with watercolors, sells his made-to-order originals through Ford Craftsman Studios (more on them later this week) and sells framed 5 x 7 prints through Fair Oak Workshops.

Russ' organic forms and flowing lines are a treat for anyone interested in the graphic art of the Arts & Crafts movement, and his precision and fine lettering are a testament to his past as a currency & certificate designer. It's exciting to know that at least one contemporary artist is doing this sort of work - much of what would have been right at home in an Art Deco gallery in 1920 Paris. I'm a huge fan of his and someday hope to have one of his pieces hanging in my own home.

Christopher Vickers & CFA Voysey

Wallpaper_advert I first encountered Christopher Vickers' work when a friend showed me photos of a clock he built (he's also reproduced another famous Voysey clock with which you may be more familiar). Based on C. F. A. Voysey's original plans, the clock is built from 7,000-year-old bog oak, and is inlaid with (faux) ivory. The original was built by Voysey in 1921 for a client - the same one for whom Voysey designed the beautiful Holly Mount in Beaconsfield. Voysey was known for his clocks, of course; apparently, he loved the confluence of lettering, machine, and furniture that these tiny and complicated objects represented.

Vickers is a scholar of all things Voysey, and 20th-century British design in general, with quite a bit of background on this great and often overlooked designer / artist / architect on his website; my own love of Voysey's work springs mainly from my interest in typography and Voysey's wonderful and expressive hand-lettering (see the wallpaper advertisement here, taken from Mr. Vickers' site) - so seeing Vickers' exceptional work, and through it his obvious love for the combined subtlety and detail that I've always appreciated in Voysey, really impressed and resonated with me.

My favorite piece of Voysey-designed furniture in Vickers collection is this replica dining chair with arms, originally designed in 1902. Vickers' reproduction sells for £1850, and appears to be completely true to the original.

Other impressive bits of Mr. Vickers' work include unique items of Arts & Crafts lighting; a number of beautiful and useful chests in a variety of sizes and configurations; beautiful and sturdy tables, including some based on Voysey designs for Hollymount and other homes; inlaid wooden boxes; cabinetry and shelving, including several that feature hardware hand-forged by Vickers; and a number of pieces of metalwork, produced in the Gimson-Cotswold tradition in just the way we like it: "by hammer & hand."

Vickers' work is art and craft, and some of the finest contemporary A&C furniture I've seen. If you're interested, you can see pieces on display from September 10 to 24 at the 2nd annual Arts & Crafts Exhibition in Gloucestershire's Prinknash Abbey Park; from September 13 to 28, you can actually visit his workshop in Frome, as it will be open to the public during Somerset Art Weeks. His work will also be included in the Ernest Gimson and the Arts & Crafts Movement exhibit in Leicester, November 8 2008 through March 1 2009.

Russ Billington: Arts & Crafts mottos from England

Love_laughter_red_rose Russ Billington is an artist living and working in the village of Pimperne in Dorset, England. He's recently begun producing a line of hand-drawn and painted mottos, as nice as anything I've seen from the Roycrofters and other great graphic artists of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Each is on 100% cotton Arches, and in addition to his stock of standards, he will also adapt or customize any motto of your choice. Russ takes personalized projects as well; do drop him a line if you have something unique in mind.

Each piece is 8 x 12 on a sheet approximate 12 x 16 inches, and they start at US$125.

For enquiries in the US and Canada, contact David Ford at To contact Russ for a custom project, email

Karl Schmidt Painting Goes for $120,000

Reader Tamera Herrod recently sent me a recap of December's Treadway- Toomey 20th Century Art & Design auction. This beautiful Karl Schmidt landscape was the surprise big-ticket item at this auction:

The catalog cover for the year-ending Treadway-Toomey Galleries' 20th Century Art & Design Auction showcased what was believed to be the sale's most valuable piece, an illustrious Tiffany Studios Memorial landscape window estimated at $90,000 to $120,000. And on Dec. 4 in Oak Park, Ill., the Tiffany masterpiece did realize $114,000. But it ranked second among top sellers. In a surprising twist, a Karl Schmidt triptych estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 stole the show when bidding escalated to achieve $120,000, a record price for this American painter's work.

A dreamy landscape with billowing, saffron-toned clouds and splashes of aquamarine sky, Schmidt's "Tall Trees of California" was implemented in oil on board in 1915. Hinged together in original frames, the three-panel painting was 30 inches wide by 14 inches high. A native of Worcester, Mass., who spent much of his life in California, Schmidt (1890-1962) was known for his landscape and marine paintings.

Roycroft Book-Arts Weekend

Our friend Richard Kegler of P22 (who sell some very detailed and well-designed Craftsman typefaces) is one of the instructors at the following Roycroft workshop, which should be of interest to our readers in the northeast, Roycroft fans throughout the country and anyone interested in fine printing and bookbinding:

The Roycroft Crafts community of Elbert Hubbard circa 1896-1915 produced astonishing amounts of hand crafted items that have become highly collectable and highly regarded. The Roycroft Campus Corporation presents a weekend workshop series which allows participants to work as artisans did 100 years ago.

A collaborative workshop series will take participants through all facets of book production. Participants will work on components of one of three books throughout the weekend. Workshops include:  papermaking, paper decoration, hand set type, hand printing, printmaking, illumination, and various binding techniques. Each participant will take home new skills in the book arts as well as a copy of one of the three books. These will be the first Roycroft books to be made at the Campus in over 60 years!

Roycroft Book-Arts Weekend: Oct 14 - 16, 2005
Roycroft Campus Coppershop South Grove at Main, East Aurora NY

Kathleen West


Kathleen West is a Roycroft Master Artisan woodblock printmaker living and working in East Aurora, NY (where else?). Her style, developed over 40 years of practice and training, incorporates elements of the Pre-Raphaelite and Nouveau movements. The level of detail in her work surpasses so much other work that is done in this medium, and her work is colorful and bright. Take a look at her alphabet series, which reminds me for some reason of William Blake. Her work is sold by dealers throughout the east coast, as well as by The Craftsman Home in Berkeley, California

A&C Stencils


Trimbelle River Studio produce a number of vintage stencil designs for the edification of your home - mostly borders, but they do sell a few panel & "spot" illustration designs as well. They also sell a full line of paints and other colorants and the various supplies needed for applying such design elements. I suppose a good portion of the appeal of these - aside from the appeal of doing it yourself, in this DIY age where everyone is an expert - is that they are much more flexible in terms of size or length than wallpaper borders, and can be altered significantly in terms of color and even structure.

Sotheby's: Greene & Greene

GreenelightRich Muller notes that "many of the pieces that have been in the Huntington's Scott gallery are now up for auction (through Sotheby's). There are a lot of high-resolution images that I've never seen anywhere else. Get your checkbooks out, or at least download some of these images!  There is also information on each lot." Catalogs are US$43; the least expensive item up for auction is significantly more expensive.

Of special note, at least to those interested in the graphic arts: some of the most expensive cuts (of such a small size, at least) ever.

Gibbs Smith, Publisher

YoshikofuschiaThis is not a book review, per se, but rather a publisher review. I've got a stack of relatively recent books on the Arts & Crafts movement in general to review, and this is sort of an appetizer for the many upcoming book reviews that we'll be printing throughout the next several weeks.

Gibbs-Smith, located in Layton, Utah of all places, give their corporate motto as "to enrich and inspire humankind." This may be the kind of thing you expect to read on the letterhead of a big art book publisher, but they do strive to meet these lofty goals.

pictured: one of Yoshiko Yamamoto's letterpress-printed cards

Continue reading "Gibbs Smith, Publisher" » 21st-Century Arts & Crafts

cherylwilliamsBuilding on the Arts & Craft movement of an earlier time, is a treasure trove of current artists working in metalwork, ceramics, printmaking, painting, fiber, glass, wood, lighting, furniture and tableware.

The Arts & Crafts masters of yesteryear would have enthusiastically approved of The Guild's Philosophy: In a nutshell, we believe that when you live with art that you love, and it's made by a gifted artist with skill and care, it adds something rich and sweet to your life, every day.

Continue reading " 21st-Century Arts & Crafts" »

John Murphy Jr., illustrator

oakland-paintingJohn Murphy Jr. is a graphic artist whose illustration work is strongly reminiscent of the magazine illustration of the 1920s and '30s. He was trained at UMass & has worked as a painter, illustrator and graphic artist for a wide variety of clients (including Style 1900 magazine) in addition to his regular day-job as art director for Balboni Associates in Springfield, MA. Prints of many of his paintings are available for sale on his website.

Craftsmen and Letterers

namasteMartin O'Brien and John Stevens create, together, some of the most stunning carved lettering I've ever seen. I don't know how many of you go crazy over this sort of thing, but typography and lettering have always been huge interests of mine since I was quite young and their work really resonates with me. Martin O'Brien writes that John, his "partner-in-crime," does all the design and layout work and that without him Martin wouldn't be able to carve his way "out of a wet paper bag," which is humble but I am sure not wholly true.

Martin is also a well-known cabinetmaker, and even in this field their collaboration has had an effect. From pieces that expertly combine the art of the letterer and the craft of the wood- and stoneworker, to Martin's own wonderfully detailed furniture design, building, repair and conservation work (much of which expresses both classical and modern Craftsman style), their work is a real treat. I hope to see much more work from this remarkable partnership.