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What is Surface Pattern Design?

In this blog post, I examine what is surface pattern design, its history and my own approach towards this wonderfully diverse art.

Published on:

February 2, 2022

What is Surface Pattern Design?

I am Heidi Vilkman, an illustrator and surface pattern designer. My art is influenced by my Nordic roots and the folktales and mythology of nature around me and in my soul.

I have always loved and made art, since I was a little girl. The act of creating marks, colours and stories on various surfaces and materials, contains the magic I see in the world, ready to be assembled together in various, often surprising ways. There is something truly wonderful about taking an idea in one’s head and turning it into a visible thing – a creation of the mind, fuelled by imagination, made concrete by fingers, and tools, whatever those may be.

So what is surface pattern design?

For over five years I have been selling my own products, including cards, gift wrap and stationery, printed with my own designs. For some reason, until about two years ago, I never considered that this type of design was called ‘surface design’, or in the case of repeating patterns, ‘surface pattern design’. Yet, the world is full of pattern design, and it is the form of design, the majority of us see every day around us. Whenever there is a design on a surface, this indeed is called surface design. So, in effect, surface design means 'design applied to a surface', including: packaging, fabric, stationery, homeware and pretty much any product that we commonly see, buy and use. The term 'surface pattern design' refers to a repeating pattern within that design.

Like myself, many surface pattern designers have come to the industry from other creative disciplines. Artists more known for their fine art, like Yayoi Kusama, have discovered the beauty of patterns in their work, and bridged the gap between fine art and surface pattern making very elegantly.

I am available for freelance pattern designer projects for a wide range of industries.

Anni Albers Pattern
Weaving pattern by Anna Albers

Yayoi Kusama
Pattern by artist Yayoi Kusama

The Master of Surface Pattern Design

William Morris (1834-96) is often seen as a pioneer in the field of surface pattern design. His extremely intricate and skilful designs in fabric and wallpaper started the arts and crafts movement in Britain, in the 19th century. Morris was a multi-disciplinary artist, but in all his creative endeavours, he emphasised the value of aesthetics and craftsmanship, as a contrast to mass production and often soulless design of the time. As a politically active man, and believing in socialist principles, Morris felt strongly about inequalities of the Victorian society. He wanted his art and designs to be available to all social classes.

William Morris pattern
Strawberry Thief by William Morris

Despite being made a few centuries ago, Morris’s surface pattern designs are still highly valued, and regarded as timeless; his aesthetic views and design legacy keeps influencing the new range of designers working in the industry today.

William Morris’s main influences to the design world were:

  •    The importance of beauty and craftsmanship in design
  •    Design principles should be suited to modern age, without being elitist
  •    Artists have both social responsibility as well as ability to make collective dreams come true.

Scandi pattern design and Nordic style

Modern Scandinavian surface pattern design (or Scandi pattern design as it's also known) has been around for about a century; it has gained worldwide reputation with its simplicity and modern, yet functional look and feel. From my own childhood, I remember Marimekko’s bold, colourful fabrics, including the iconic Poppy pattern, designed by Maija Isola.

Marimekko Poppy pattern
Poppy - by Mail Isola

My mother worked as a pattern cutter and seamstress at a furniture company and our house was always full of fabric off cuts, including those of Marimekko, Vallila and many others. The timeless, somewhat abstract patterns of the 1960's, symbolically portray the heart of the Nordic design, which decades later regained popularity with the masses, due to its retro feel.

Apart from the well known modern patterns, I am also inspired by the other kind of Northern European art and design, such as Scandinavian folk art. Themes and motifs used in the decorative folk art bring the Nordic landscape and colourful expression inside people’s houses, with all the mythology and folk tales they evoke. Florals, animals and connection to nature and woodland mythology, have always been great sources of inspiration for Scandinavian designers, whether created in fabric or other mediums.

Swedish cushion design ca1800
Swedish folk art on a cushion ca. 1800

Melodi by Erik Ljungberg
Melody pattern by Erik Ljungberg

My story of pattern design

I have been an artist for many years. Since moving to the UK over twenty years ago, I have worked as an illustrator, paper artist and ceramicist. My childhood landscapes and cultural heritage has always played a big part in my creative approach. My art is full of dreamy forest mythology and magical symbolism from nature and fairytales.

Journey paper craft art
Journey by Heidi Vilkman

Due to the pandemic and lockdown that followed, I decided to follow my new passion, and sign up on a surface pattern design course, run by a designer and educator, Bonnie Christine. Along with other talented creatives on that course, including Louise Bell and Cassandra Riley, I fell in love with the endless possibilities of surface pattern design. Since the course, I have created well over 100 patterns, whilst learning to master the digital process of repeating pattern design. I feel like this creative journey is one of the most exciting I have been on, with all the opportunities it offers, whether in licensing designs, or manufacturing bespoke products for my customers.

How do I choose surface patterns?

I always start my designs on a piece of paper, sketching them out with a pencil. I choose my subject matters from stories of my childhood, surrounding natural landscapes, foreign travels and inspiration through literature. After scanning my sketches into the computer, I work on the motifs digitally, eventually turning them into a scalable vector artwork. I want my patterns to be colourful and original, and to have an element of fun and folklore in them.

Kingfishers sketch and pattern
Kingfishers - ink sketch and repeating pattern

What can we use surface patterns for?

My surface pattern designs are both bold and playful; they work wonderfully as

  • Bolt fabric to use for clothing and quilting
  • Stationery, including cards, notebooks and gift wrap
  • Soft furnishing, like bedding and curtains
  • Wallpaper and wall decor
  • Tableware and Home goods

Folk Art coffee cups
Folk Art tableware mock up by Heidi Vilkman

surface design plates
Fox Forest and Hare Hop plates

My approach to pattern design

I make both seasonal, as well as more timeless designs, including florals and animals. These can be used around the year to decorate many of the surfaces you commonly see. Often with a sweet childlike feel, many of my designs are suitable for soft furnishings and children's clothing. On the other hand, my festive designs have wonderful Nordic magic and enchantment of the Yule time.

The act of manipulating the arrangement and colours of the patterns, until I arrive to the composition I am happy with, tickles my brain in a nice way. Like Morris, and many other creative contemporaries, I have experimented with a large number of creative techniques. I am always wondering where I can take my expression, what can I create with that particular tool or medium. Pattern design is a wonderful way for me to combine illustration and story-telling with suggestive, and often quite symbolic elements, from my life experiences.

Winter Wonderland repeat pattern
Winter Wonderland repeat pattern by Heidi Vilkman

Dahlias surface repeat pattern

Bee Garden surface pattern design
Bee Garden by Heidi Vilkman (from the Secret Garden collection)

Making a collection of pattern designs

Apart from individual, stand-alone patterns, I often work in collections of repeating patterns. These collections include one (or occasionally two) hero patterns and two to six complementary patterns. The purpose of the multiple patterns are to be thematically connected and to work in harmony together, but also to offer alternative scales and points of view to the chosen theme.

Retro Geometrics pattern collection
Retro Geometrics pattern collection by Heidi Vilkman

The complementary patterns, also called secondary and blender patterns, are generally simpler in design compared to the hero pattern. They offer contrast and balance to the collection, by the use of different scale and complexity. Mini collections may only have two or three patterns in total, but similar design concept applies: to have a well-balanced set of designs. The need for variety in patterns becomes apparent when used in particular products, including bedding and quilting.

About Heidi Vilkman, surface pattern designer

I am always looking for collaboration and licensing opportunities to make the best use of my beautiful designs. My ideas are original and abundant and I work efficiently to a brief and deadline. I am happy to discuss your requirements on how to make a beautifully bespoke design for your surface design project. A few of my designs are also available as print on demand bolt fabric and wallpaper via my Spoonflower shop.

You can read more about my work as a Freelance Pattern Designer here.

Apart from surface design, I also specialise in paper crafting for use in cards, stationery, wedding accessories and corporate projects. I can happily work on individual, custom projects, as well as designs for reproduction.

My Etsy shop, as well as my Webstore, are stocked full of beautiful products designed by me, and if you subscribe to my newsletter, you get discount on your first order.

Please feel free to email me on or follow me on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn. If you are looking for collaborating with me, I am happy to send you digital samples of my past work and a link to my full design portfolio.

Heidi Vilkman surface designer logo

You can hire me to make your next pattern design

Contact me

More blog posts:

Scandinavian Christmas Pattern Design
I am a Scandinavian Surface Pattern Designer. I make beautiful patterns for the festive season, inspired by nature, folk art and my Nordic childhood.
AI and Surface Pattern Design
In this blog article I am looking at the pros and cons of using AI as a design tool in surface pattern design.

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