Design - Cultural Factors

I'm interested in factors which contribute to a good design. I think that cultural biases play a role, perhaps a significant role. Here are some examples of cultural biases that are probably factors that contribute to a "good design" in one culture but a so-so or bad design in others.
Western cultures read left to right and then top to bottom while middle eastern cultures read right to left and then top to bottom. Eastern cultures read top to bottom and then left to right. Good western designs have a tendency to use this bias to draw the viewer's attention around the piece. The same design "trick" might not work for other cultures because their "reading paths" are different.
Designs with clockwise "attention paths" are familiar to cultures where clocks and watches are important but may seem odd to cultures where time is seen differently.
Some countries had limited woods available - Japan for example had primarily "soft woods". Did that affect their approach to design? To get around the limitations of the range of woods available did they develop various colored finishes to provide a broader color pallet than the available woods provided? Europeans had a much broader range of woods and wood colors so colored finishes weren't necessary.
Does this make sense to you? Have you any other examples of cultural biases influencing "good design"?
Am putting together some pages on "design tricks" if you're interested in adding some images to the topic (all one line) www.wood-workers.com/users/charlieb/!Design/DesignTricks1.html
charlie b
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I'm sure culture affects what designs people like. What was in the house where one grew up will be more familiar. It's my guess that it may be indirect and hard to detect, though. For example, if someone lived in a house with simple furniture, he may find he likes Japanese-influenced furniture better than Victorian-influenced furniture, without really understanding why. There is great worth in understanding why *you* like or dislike various styles and details, because then it is easier to combine ideas and create something new. Also there is great value in just being able to identify the differences (details and history) in styles, because then one could enjoy building something fresh and unique for someone by just seeing some pieces they like. Historical pieces, that have stood the test of time, have essentially proved to be good combinations of dimensions and details, which also would help.

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Sun, Jul 27, 2003, 3:56am (EDT-4) snipped-for-privacy@accesscom.com (charlieb) says: I'm interested in factors which contribute to a good design. I think that cultural biases play a role, perhaps a significant role. <snip>
I don't see it. I think you are trying to mix different subjects here. Anyway, part of the design of something is what it is, or will be used for.
One example: A bridge is a bridge. Used to cross rivers, valleys, highways, whatever. That's basic, no matter what the culture. As long as it works. A design can be the most beautiful in the world, and if it won't hold up in use, bad design. A butt-ugly design, but holds up, good design. However, if you want to "pretty up" the second bridge, while still keeping it strong, that would be aesthetics.
I see cultural differences in a bridge as being mostly material available. I have seen pictures of foot bridges in South America woven from fibres. That's what's available, it works. Joint effort for a week maybe, and they have a bridge usable for years. Cost? Their labor. Seen very similar food bridges in other parts of the world, with steel cable. Cost? A lot more, but usable a lot longer.
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McQualude wrote:

snip

But chinese furniture, perhaps because of the Confuciousistic (sp) way of life that dominated China for so long stressed harmony - and it shows uniquely in their furniture. Where three pieces of wood meet in a corner the joint is triple mitered - grain direction seldom meets at 90 degrees, perhaps because that would look unharmonious. Their joinery is quite sophisticated but totally hidden from view, thus not distracting from the harmonious whole. Chinese furniture also shies away from straigt lines and seems to take things down to the point where just enough to work is the goal, heavily carved pieces being the exception. Western furniture is typically way over designed for its function. Most of the structural components could be halved and not affect the functionality of the piece.

stuck with "the norm", making evolutionary changes as new tools, techniques and materials became available. But when trade with Japan opened up the Art Nouveau style swept through Europe like a wild fire, affecting everything that was "designed", from jewerly to silver ware to furniture to bridges and train stations. The design of euro culture leaped from having a few curves to everything curved and non-planer (OK so the baroque stuff with all the carving and gilting wasn't flat stuff but most people weren' Louie the XIV either)

sculpture, furniture or buildings and initially were done purposefully and knowingly. Much of Renaissance art (and that includes architecture and furniture) used "tricks" to grab and hold the viewer's interest. Painters used blue to imply distance and give added depth to their work. If you've glanced acrossed a landscape during the summer you may note that there's a natural haze and things further away appear bluer than things closer to you.
Hell, the Golden Mean/Golden Ratio is a "trick" AND very cultural. That Greek "trick" doesn't show up as a dominant factor in eastern of middle eastern design.

Yes, the structure is symetrical but the grain pattern and direction doesn't have to be and often isn't. The placement of light and dark woods/finishes doesn't have to be symetrical nor does the pattern of shapes within the basic outline have to be symetrical. Western culture stuff likes symetry within symetry. But Japanese tansu often are asymetric inside the outer rectangle. Japanese furniture also makes the wood and it's grain a major factor in their design whereas in european work it's the shape and function which dominate and the wood is typically stained and finished such that the grain becomes insignificant in the design, the more homogeneous it looks the better.
But painters have used the "spiral trick" for a long time and it works for furniture design as well.

Just look at their building joinery and and tools and this becomes apparent. Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes so their wood construction joinery accounts for movement and the strength of their woods. You don't find many simple mortise and tenon joints or wedged tenons because that requires harder woods. Instead the went with integrated, interlocking parts which relied on gravity to hold them locked together.

In europe perhaps, but a lot longer in The Orient
Now here's another cultural thing. Much of eastern furniture is designed to be transportable (has handles/wheels/loops for poles as part of the design) whereas most european furniture does not. Shaker "built ins" assume a constancy and permanence - something not taken as a given in places where the ground moves a lot - and suddenly at that. Most euro furniture, the Scandanavian stuff being an exception, assume large living spaces and there fore large pieces of furniture. Japan has limited flat spots and has concentrated its population in a relatively small area of ground. Space is at a premium so large, single function furniture just doesn't work, given the smaller living space.

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So which of these is "good" and which is "bad". Sounds like both have their merits and can be appreciated for what they are. Both of them sound like they are internally consistant with the set of proportion and harmony that they set for themselves. I'd contend that as long as there is some rhythm and proportion which is consistent then the appearance will be good. Where there is no consistency then the appearance will be bad. Just like music. One can not simply say that 3/4 beats are bad and 4/4 is good, though one can certainly have a preference. I think you will find (near) universal dislike for music which does not have some sort of basic rhythm. Goethe called architecture "frozen music" after the quote from Pythagoras.

This statement works against your premise. If there were a cultural bias towards a certain style and set of proportions, then why would there be such an attraction to items designed around a "foreign" set of design constraints? It is more than just novelty. That which is good is recognized to be good elsewhere. One could make the case that the Japanese despite their writing system appreciate Van Gogh more than the Europeans, at least if we use the price paid for his paintings as a guide.

In specifics there are differences, but the good in both have some consistent set of geometric proportion. The Greeks used several different types of columns (Ionic, Doric ...) Hard to argue which one of them is better. Mixing them up is likely to be a mistake however.

Japanese Architecture and even furniture is designed around a strict set of proportions and modules. The asymmetry is not random. That is why we like it.
As for finish, earlier you were saying that Japan had a limited set of woods so they turned to paints and stains. Here you say the opposite. As for grain, the Japanese appreciate straight grained cedar as much as anyone in the world. They also appreciate fine lacquer work which renders things homogeneous. There is too much variety in the world to make this sort of blanket assumption.

Do you have an example of this? One or two examples would be much more convincing than line drawings and optical illusions.

What did they use on the walls in Lascaux?

How does portability or design for a specific purpose make a difference between good and bad? Certainly there are different requirements for different circumstances and some of those requirements have become codified (the dentil and triglyph for exampe) even though they are no longer required.
This is a very interesting subject, however, it seems to not really bear on what is "good" and "bad". What I mean to say is that regardless of culture, one can generally appreciate the "good" in design and architecture anywhere. As for the bad, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.
So what are the rules for good design? Holds to some set of scale, rhythm and proportion (unless breaking it for effect) Works for intended purpose (unless non-functional for effect) Deals with materials honestly and to their best advantage (unless it uses them in a perverse way for effect).
Without adhering (or purposefully disregarding) these rules, any tricks of spirals or directing they movement of the eye will fall flat.
-Jack
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