Lemons are hot again!

Part One: When did people start using lemons? 

Citrus motifs and hues are back! Have you noticed that lemons are “in the air”? There’s an explosion of lemon wallpaper, tumblers, plates, throw cushions, vases and more. 

This delightful resurgence made me wonder how long lemons have been a design motif. For a really long time, it turns out, as citrus has been around for a while. 

Lemons are thought to have originated around China, or north-eastern Pakistan, or most likely, India. There are quite a few theories, including Alexander the Great helping spread lemons by bringing them to Europe via India/Greece in the 4th century BC. (Remember the Indo-Greeks from history class?) They became popular for medicine, cooking, helping with nausea and sea-sickness, and also as a status symbol. 

But when did they start appearing in design? Lemons were featured in decorative mosaics dating back to first century Rome. Carbonized lemons were allegedly recovered from the ruins of Pompei, a town which was destroyed in the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Fast forward to the 13th century, when Arabs boosted lemons through trade and their conquest of present-day Spain. The name “lemon” might have come from the Arabic “laymun”, although there are similar references in Old French.

Hop over to the 17th century, and there’s the question of why there are so many lemons, often depicted partially peeled, in Dutch still-life paintings of that time. Contemporary NYU art historian Dr. Mariet Westerman, who grew up in the Netherlands, says a lemon indicated substantial wealth, and was never included as a random decoration. A lemon on your table meant you were somebody. I’ll leave you with her fascinating talk “The Emergence of the Lemon Twist in Dutch Still Life.”

Stay tuned this week for Part Two: How to lemonize your space. About how the lemon became an everyday design motif, and how the newest incarnations can brighten your interior. 

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