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Abstracting the Fleet: Dazzle Camouflage’s Influence on Contemporary Art and Design

With its origins on military warships, the distinctive aesthetic is now a favorite of designers and artists.
June 3, 2013, 2:30pm

Design 99's "Illuminated Garage"

Picasso claimed it to be a product of Cubist influence. Others attributed it as a play on the abstract chaos of Italian Futurist art. Vorticists from Britain, on the other hand, actually participated in the concept’s development, with movement artists such as Edward Wadsworth contributing some 2,000-odd designs for ship patterns.

Compilation of artist designs for dazzle technology [via]

Regardless of its roots, dazzle camouflage is arguably one of the most strikingly aesthetic tools of war ever employed. Shapes and stripes decorated along the outer surfaces of merchant and war vessels were intended to confuse enemy submarines of a “dazzle ship’s” exact nautical position. Beautiful, stunning, and, in practice, terrifying, it was a rare occurrence where art was the technology and war became a medium.


Whether or not the methodology actually worked was, at the time, indeterminable. Research reveals its incorporation in theaters of marine warfare was spurred by faith and desperation, and despite its prominence in allied tactics during the first and second world wars, there was never a solid way to qualify its effectiveness.

Designed by Edward Wadsworth, a frequent contributor to dazzle design, 1936 [via]

USS Nebraska 1918 [via]

The name “dazzle camouflage” was supposedly coined by artist and sailor Norman Wilkinson in 1918, but prior studies of animal camouflage yielded similar ideas. American naturalist and painter Abbott H. Thayer first proposed concepts of “disruptive camouflage” to the British Army towards the beginning of World War I, arguing monocolor fatigues were incompetent at concealing soldiers in the battle field.

Thorough research on camouflage patterns among flora and fauna guided Thayer’s creation of combat uniform prototypes which implemented his ideas. It was Wilkinson, though, who oversaw the design process for more than 4,000 merchant ships and approximately 400 war vessels. A large percentage of the pattern models utilized were created and designed by women studying at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Students at the Royal Academy of Arts in London configuring dazzle designs [via]

Although its more jarring variations were discontinued following World War II, dazzle camouflage is far from forgotten. A number of recent installations and projects by contemporary creatives have actively incorporated its jagged, peculiar style.

Francisco Moreno references dazzle camouflage as a major influence to his work, as evidenced by his installation Las Noticias which was featured in a Curbs and Stoops showing in Westbury, NY last summer.


Moreno partially attributes his affinity for dazzle to its social context, noting the schemes “were created by artists and executed by workers,” and that pulling from their influence was founded in the same desire as Picasso’s: “to ‘find aesthetic experience at the margins of what was socially regulated.’”

Francisco Moreno’s installation piece “Las Noticias” [via]

Charles Mary Kubricht’s installation Alive-nesses: Proposal for Adaptation comprised the transformation of storage containers in the High Line at the Rail Yards in New York into geometric distortions of black and white stripes—similar to the pattern applied to French battle cruiser Gloire.

Detroit, Michigan-based design studio Design 99 positions vivid, abstract structures and colors to abandoned houses in an attempt to dissuade invasion attempts by vandals and burglars. The studio also attributes their fascination to early 20th-century camouflage patterns.

Design 99’s The Illuminated Garage [via]

According to Design 99 co-founder Mitch Cope, “[the designs] do seem to protect or deter vandalism more effectively than say a piece of plywood screwed to a door or window.”

The studio’s most recent installation, “RazzleDazzleBellevue”, attempts to secure an industrial building [via]

Adam Harvey, an alumnus of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, discovered the appliance of dazzle-pattern paint to strategic points on the face can bypass facial recognition technologies utilized by websites like Facebook. The study’s name? CV Dazzle.

CV Dazzle vs PhotoTagger

Maybe that last concept isn’t very applicable in the long-term, but still an impressive idea, and proof that dazzle camouflage isn’t just an inutile mesh of clashing geometries. In fact recent studies suggest the technology may actually be useful, given that a number of circumstances line up perfectly in the battlefield. Regardless, future endeavors by artists and designers looking to incorporate the style as both an aesthetic and a tool will undoubtedly continue to yield fascinating results, as they try to untangle the question of how to create art that isn’t meant to be art at all.