‘Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of other celestial bodies,’ wrote Yayoi Kusama in an open letter to Richard Nixon in 1968.

The prolific Japanese artist, sometimes called the ‘Priestess of Polka Dots’, has become known for her fixation on the print, which began as a child when she first recalls having hallucinations of a world covered in endless dots.

yayoi kusama, with all my love for the tulips, i pray forever 2011,  © yayoi kusama
Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever (2011) by Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever (2011), © YAYOI KUSAMA. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/Venice

They’re visions that followed her into adulthood – Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric facility in Tokyo since 1977 – and she has described becoming lost in the repetition of the pattern, of it obliterating her sense of self. It’s this sensation, equal parts breathtaking and unnerving, that her Infinity Mirror Rooms, two of which are on display until May 2021 at London’s Tate Modern, offer others the chance to experience.

infinity mirrored room – filled with the brilliance of life by yayoi kusama
Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled With The Brilliance of Life by Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama/Tate

There’s a pleasing parallel between Kusama’s mirrored rooms full of dots of light that have a transportive effect on viewers and the origins of the term polka dot itself, thought to have been inspired by the equally captivating staccato rhythm of the polka dance, popular in the mid-19th century.

A joyful print, as at home on Minnie Mouse’s red dress as it is adorning an itsy bitsy bikini, it became ubiquitous throughout the 1940s and 50s with a kind of heightened femininity. Its devoted A-list fan club, which counted Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball as members, probably held some sway with that.

It took until the 1980s for the polka dot to shake off its ditsy persona and take on a more powerful look. Fashion rebels like Carolina Herrera and Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons, turned its girly connotations on their head during this brash decade, offering a punk take on the pattern. However, in the home, the dot has retained a resolutely wholesome image – think of Emma Bridgewater’s cosy country-style ceramics.

mega dot quilt by hay
Mega Dot quilt by Hay
Hay

Now, though, that status quo is shifting and a new generation of designers is utilising polka dot power to uplift our interiors.

Camille Walala embraced the pattern’s playfulness in ‘House of Dots’, an installation designed in collaboration with Lego, which graced London’s Coal Drops Yard earlier this year. The playground-like dream home took Walala’s modern take on Memphis style to new heights, with walls decorated in oversized monochrome dots.

Giant dots are also one of Danish homeware brand Hay’s most recognisable motifs – its ‘Mega Dot’ quilt and cushions are a stylish way to show a love of this print. For a more subtle take on the trend, there’s Cecilie Manz’s recent ‘Dots’ rug for Fritz Hansen and Ferm Living’s ‘Dot’ wallpaper.

dot wallpaper by ferm living
Dot wallpaper by Ferm Living
Ferm Living

Kusama’s use of dots may be tied up with a loss of self, a fading into the vastness of the universe, but there’s also an undeniable strength to her imagery. Her letter to Nixon, for example, was a heartfelt plea to end the Vietnam war.

Perhaps today, when we face different global struggles – not just a pandemic, but also a climate emergency – it’s no surprise that we are embracing the pattern again. If nothing else, dots have the power to cheer us up.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration July 2020ELLE Decoration August 2020

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