Lena Struwe | Essays

From Seeds to Symbols: Dandelion Design In Our Lives

PHOTO: CC BY-SA Lena Struwe

Dandelions as real plants or images are ubiquitous in today’s world, both inside our houses, on commercial items we own or see advertised, on our own or friends’ bodies…and outside on lawns, sports fields, and roadsides. The images of the dandelions’ yellow flowers and airy seed balls show up in allergy drugs and cell phone advertising, in comics and memes, and on company logos (especially in marketing). There are wallpaper and diaper liner patterns and lamp designs based on dandelions. Dandelion tattoos are especially popular. Of course, we see it also on herbicide product labels as the evil weed, and used as a food product, whether privately foraged or sold expensively in the local health food supermarket.

A recent search on eBay for “dandelion” resulted in over a quarter million listings with about one-third of these in the “Cell Phones & Accessories” category, and a tenth in the equally narrow “Home Décor” category. A similar search on Etsy resulted in nearly 30,000 results, with top categories being “Jewelry,” “Art & Collectibles,” and “Home & Living.” Why do we have such an intense relationship with this common weed? What is it about dandelions that influences our emotions and has made it become so involved in our lives (and such a common design element)? Do we really make the connection between the both rebellious and beautiful cover design of the cell phone cover we want and the yellow-flowered weeds in the backyard that our garden magazines tell us to despise and remove?

IMAGES: CC BY-SA Lena Struwe

With their golden flowers in the early spring, dandelions represent the return of life, the rebirth of growth and green after a harsh winter, and a display of abundant strength and power. Lawns, roadsides, and meadows explode with a sudden outburst of deep yellow flower heads, leading to happiness or, sometimes, a big sigh among home owners over gardening work to come. Dandelions flower whenever the temperatures are acceptable year-round, but the largest burst of flowers is in mid-spring to early summer depending on latitude and local climate, and this flowering peak only lasts for a few weeks.

Days after flower, dandelions go to seed, forming feathery puffballs. The sunlight striking these clusters of seeds in our lawns and fields has inspired at least three lamps designed and named after the dandelion or referencing its scientific name (Taraxacum officinale). In the early 2010s, IKEA released the lamp “Maskros” (dandelion in Swedish), a large, expansive and airy lamp fixture for one central lamp, with countless redesigns and DIY hacks by amateur crafters. Italian designer Achille Castiglioni created the “Taraxacum S2” suspension light in 1960, and “Taraxacum 88” in 1988. The latter version of his lamp includes 60 clear light bulbs that are mounted on a 3D geometric center formed by aluminum triangles (together drawing over 2400 watts on your electric bill when fully turned on, so you are best off with a dimmer). The lamp is still in production by FLOS in Italy and sells for over $5000. Many other variants of dandelion-inspired light fixtures exist as chandeliers, crystal balls, or solar-powered light strings, with Moooi producing another well-known design.

IMAGES left to right: IKEA, Stardust Modern, FLOS.
For generations, adults have taught children that if you wish for something while blowing, and manage to blow all of the seeds away, then the wish will come true. The hope of wishes coming true continue becomes a lifelong association, and we see this manifest in our contemporary markets of commerce, crafts, and art.

For example, the World War II poster text “Keep Calm and Carry On” has been changed into many memes, including “Keep Calm and Make a Wish.” A recent Google image search by the author shows that out of the first 100 images for this wishful expression, 22 of them include dandelion images. A playful Marilyn Monroe blowing dandelion seeds with a pouting mouth (like blowing dreams and innocent kisses) was photographed by Dave Cicero in 1951.

For children, blowing the fruits off the dandelion head is a game and just fun; for adults the process and its symbolism could be more substantial and a symbol or reminder of deep personal struggles that have or have not yet been overcome. But when we blow away the seeds of a dandelion, do we think of the biological battle we are participating in—at once helping to spread the seeds of a weed that costs many gardeners untold headaches and dollars?

The dandelion has grown to become the perfect symbol of survival and rebellion, a beautiful fighter that refuse to follow rules and regulations. It also introduces uncontrolled chaos and randomness to our supposedly organized lives. We also associate it with hope, dreams, and play. Perhaps this is why we simultaneously love and hate the dandelion so much.

Jobs | June 16