The Minangkabau traditionally embellish the wooden walls, pillars, and ceilings of the rumah gadang with bas-relief carved wooden motifs that reflect and symbolize their adat. The motifs consists of profuse floral designs based on a simple underlying geometric structure. The motifs are similar to those of the Minangkabau woven songket textiles, with colors thought to have been derived from Chinese brocades. Traditionally, the motifs do not show animals or humans in a realistic form, although some may represent animals, human beings, or their activities or behavior. The motifs are based on the Minangkabau concept of aesthetics, which is part of their view of their world (Alam Minangkabau) in which expression is always based upon the natural environment. A well-known adat aphorism says, ‘nature is our teacher’.
Ninety-four motifs have been observed on rumah gadang. Thirty-seven of them refer to flora, such as kaluak paku (‘fern tendrils’), saluak laka (‘interwoven rattan’), pucuak rabuang (‘bamboo shoots’), areca-nut palms, and lumuik hanyuik (‘washed-away moss’). Twenty-eight motifs refer to fauna, such as tupai tatagun (‘startled squirrel’), itiak pulang patang (‘ducks going home in the afternoon) which symbolizes co-operation and homecoming wanderers, and kumbang janti (golden bumblebee). The remaining twenty-nine motifs refer to humans and sometimes their activities or behavior, such as rajo tigo (three kings of the realm), kambang manih (sweet flower, used to describe an amiable girl) and jalo takambang (casting a net).