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What are These Leaves on My Table Lamp? The History and Symbolism of Acanthus Leaves in Design

Acanthus Leaves Design on Table Lamp

If you were to walk into Ferro Designs workshop today and meander through the rows of table lamps, wall sconces, coffee tables and console tables, you would notice more than a few examples incorporating the leaf design as a motif. Certainly not a new idea, these table lamps, wall sconces, and tables are carrying forward a lovely design theme created millennia ago.

acanthus leafSince the 5th century BC, designers of buildings, furniture, wall friezes, and other decorative arts, have demonstrated their wonder in a simple and abundant plant called the acanthus. Common in the Mediterranean coastal region, the acanthus plant grows in the harshest conditions. You might find it being blown by swift, salty breezes on a craggy island in the Mediterranean, or clinging to a cliff-side.  Yet it endures. It even looks tough, sporting thick, spiky leaves that are reminiscent of some near my house, belonging to the farmer’s bane, the thistle. Ancient peoples appreciated the enduring quality of the acanthus and began using it as a symbol of long life and immortality. Greek temple builders appear to be the first to incorporate the acanthus into their designs. From the ornament of the roof line, to the capital of the Corinthian column, to the sculpted wall frieze, all came alive with this symbol of vibrant, enduring life.

I must back up just a bit to interject a caveat. People love to make a symbol all their own.  Looking at some of our table lamps next to a photo of the acanthus plant, I just don’t quite see the likeness. But this is where wonderful human nature comes in. We just can’t leave good enough alone! The acanthus leaf began to be used in a stylized way, with different artists, and different regions representing it in their own original manner, and all using it to symbolize long, tenacious life.

The Romans continued the use of the acanthus in their designs. In Medieval times, the motif was used in carved furniture and in the embellishment of manuscripts and tapestries. And with the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of everything wonderfully ancient, the lovely acanthus leaf again became a major motif for… everything!

acanthus leaf carving
Acanthus Leaf Carving

Some leaf would become the most commonly used in art and design, and personally, I’m glad that the acanthus received top billing!  It is lovely after all, but more than that, I appreciate its representation as something that takes trouble and difficulty and pushes through, clinging to life.  Next time you notice a wonderful leaf motif in some design, perhaps in one of our table lamps, think of the tenacity of the acanthus plant, and be encouraged!

Photo Credits Top to bottom: Fairy Feller (
James DeMers (

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