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
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
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)
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.
Sun, Jul 27, 2003, 3:56am (EDT-4) email@example.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.
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
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.
Always put off until tomorrow something which, tomorrow, you could put
off until, let's say, next year.
- Lady Myria LeJean.
Life just ain't life without good music. - JOAT
Web Page Update 23 Jul 2003. Some tunes I like.
But chinese furniture, perhaps because of the Confuciousistic (sp) way
that dominated China for so long stressed harmony - and it shows
in their furniture. Where three pieces of wood meet in a corner the
is triple mitered - grain direction seldom meets at 90 degrees,
because that would look unharmonious. Their joinery is quite
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
heavily carved pieces being the exception. Western furniture is
way over designed for its function. Most of the structural components
could be halved and not affect the functionality of the piece.
Ah, but until there were cultural exchanges, via trade, furniture
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)
But "tricks" are used in visual arts all the time, be it painting,
sculpture, furniture or buildings and initially were done purposefully
and knowingly. Much of Renaissance art (and that includes
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.
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
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
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.
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