Humans have long created pattern. Prehistoric cave paintings, such as the mysterious hands (right) dating back 10,000 years, found at the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Argentina, include patterns within them, for reasons we can only guess at. Over time this use of pattern evolved into the written word, art, design, and even eventually into secret coded communications during times of war.

The wide use of decorative patterns is closely linked to the Industrial Revolution, when the automation of human skills allowed mass production of patterned furnishings and clothes for the first time. The ability to create patterns on a huge and affordable scale boosted the popularity of wallpaper, fabric, and other designs from Victorian companies such as Morris & Co and Liberty. During this period, nature took center stage for most patterns, such as leaf shapes, flowers, and exotic animals, bringing the beauty of the wild into the home.

When we create pattern we tend to do so in a more precise way than in nature—straightening lines, ironing out imperfections, evening up sizes, smoothing shapes. Whether for ease of drawing or manufacture, or purely for esthetic reasons, this simplification of pattern has been a driving force in bringing order and structure to our homes, gardens, and workplaces. Windows, walls, fences, staircases—everywhere is an opportunity for pattern, from elaborate to minimalistic.

Today, pattern is as important and popular as ever. Clothes and furnishings with pattern continue to come in and out of fashion, while patterned wallpaper and tiles are still used as focal points. Although increasingly minimalist, architecture still features pattern, albeit with grand-scale components and an emphasis on geometric shape. At the same time, a modern trend in pattern has developed, particularly in gardens, that seeks to copy the free-flowing, less restrained patterns seen in nature. Minimalism and natural profusion may appear to be two contrasting styles, but they work together, showing the ever-evolving power of pattern.

In gardens, pattern is everywhere—on leaves, in plant shapes, repeated in borders, in playground equipment, fixed into patio paving and seat cushion fabrics. More complex patterns appear in plantings, where gardeners seek to create a tapestry of leaf texture, color repetition, and form that changes over time. Combined, all these elements can transform the way a garden looks and feels.

Pattern is almost always pivotal in making a design work, bringing logic and movement to a space. A pattern in planting or hard landscaping can give a garden instant visual impact as well as create structure and a relaxing flow, even helping to guide people through its spaces.