Fernando Vallejo-Siller
Industrial Designer
   


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Victoria University of Wellington,  New Zealand
Ph.D. Research topic (unfinished since 2001)
Integration of Regional Aesthetics into Global Product Design

 Victoria University of Wellington

“The concept of a local or national culture is a paradoxical proposition not only because of the present obvious antithesis between rooted culture and universal civilization but also because all cultures, both ancient and modern, seem to have depended for their intrinsic development on a certain cross-fertilization with other cultures.”

Kenneth Frampton
Critical Regionalism on “Modern Architecture a critical history”, Thames & Hudson, New York 1992


Introduction

 

As Frampton says, since distant times civilizations have built their culture based not only in developments and knowledge aquired by themselves, but also by the contact and exchange with other cultures. Both elements are always present within the skain of processes that give shape to the culture of each nation. This processes not always occur in the same way, degree or moment in time, or at least that's how it seems to be at first sight. The indiviual results will always have particular characteristics which are precisely what characterizes each gruop. This thesis is about finding an appropiate model of analysis to understand the social processes of appropriation and exchange that are consititutive of culture.

Altough each community develops and builds it's own culture in an unique way, and that is why we call it "local"; as the contact with other groups gets more intense, some of their practices, activities, customs and beliefs will turn to be more and more similar to those of other groups that adopted those elements in their cultures too. This is what A. D. Smith refers to as "shared memory", that is, elements that generate "homogenization". Human nature makes each individual unique, and thus, each group of people is conformed with diversety. But we can look for similar patterns within individuals and groups, so that we can refer to a group as a unit.

"Chacque condition est définie, inséparablement, par ses propriétés relationnelles qu'elle doit à sa position dans le système des conditions qui est aussi un système de différences, de positions différentielles, c'est-a-dire par tout ce qui la distingue de tout ce qu'elle n'est pas et en particulier de tout ca à quoi elle s'oppose: l'identité sociale se définit et d'affirme dans la difference." 

Pierre Bourdieu
"La Distinction" 1979: 191
 

Due to the rapid development of communications, commercial exchange and masive human displacements during the XX century, most of the nations are now immersed in a strong exchange wave which we recently call "globalization". Thus exchange is not a new phenomenon, for the first time the impact of global exchange reached a level without precedent in what we call "a global network". As it becomes important for polititians and economists to understand this phenomenon to be able to develop strategies, it is also important for all areas of design to understand the repercussions of cultural exchange within the local framework and the global sphere aswell. This thesis focuses on that vertex, i.e. the zone where local and global design coincide.

Frampton implies in his text how complex the structure of processes which constitute a culture is. Those processes are not a linear sequence of events, but they interact with each other in different grades and moments. We can separate some elements to analize them in detail, altough we must remember that each process is part of an intricate structure, that they are not isolated and results depend on the output results of other processes too. The results are not random or accidental, but are a deliberate act of human beings. Altough the nations have no control over some external influences, they can control if and how those events are going to be reflected in their culture. For this thesis those processes are understood as deliberate actions of the nations and do not have random consecuences, so they can be subject of a scientific analysis.

When we talk about exchange, we should understand that it works both ways. There is what is comming into the local, but there are links that go from the inside of the regional to other groups too. i.e, what we call globalization wave is just the sum of elements coming out of diverse local cultures. Globalization is not an entity generated by it's own, but is the sum of processes that were at some stage deliberately created at a local level. We can see then each nation not just as receiver, but also as generator of influences on other groups.

If we consider then, that what we call global is in fact a deliberate result of processes that are generated at a local level;  we can understand then the importance of nourishing the global exchange with knowledge and values that come from local cultures. We try to keep aside in this thesis from extreme discourses that defend local culture (vernacular) from any foreign influence,  and on the other side the puritanist modernism which denies any link to local roots. My view is that we can not underrate the importance of the local knowledge as part of the global exchange. As Frampton said, cultures have depended on a certain degree of exchange to enrich their own cultures. If we eliminate from that exchange all elements generated by local cultures, it will be like taking away the nutrients from aliments, or the active ingredients off the medicines! 

Understanding the processes that intervene in the integration (understood as a deliberate act at the moment of designing) of the local aesthetic values (understood as a gamma of elements that communicate or transmit something about a culture and not just as form, colour, symbols, or styles) into the global product design, we can determine which processes or elements facilitate or difficult the exchange of ideas between cultures through product design and will be able to tell which of those processes cause homogenization or polarization.

To share, adapt, or appropriate techniques, objects, materials or traditions has been part of the cultural and social development of all nations. Being able to share local knowledge to a global culture through product design was the question that inspired this thesis. Integrating the local aesthetics into the global design can make our global vocabulary richer in forms of expression. It can also help us to understand each other better.



When we say that local values are integrated in global design, we are refering to the fact that globalization is the sum of elements. Altough for Bartelson (1) there is also a paradox in that concept: "The whole is always something more than the sum of the parts, yet the parts are always something more than mere instantiations of the whole" aknowledging that in the same way that local culture is a deliberate construct, globalization is also a social construct.

Our Analysis Model focuses on the zone whre the exchange processes of both local and global coincide. It is important to understand that the processes must be seen not as isolated events but are articulated and interconnected. This linkage-articulation is not absolute or essential for all times and cultures.
 

analysis scheme 

 

A series of products that can help to understand the social processes associated with the integration of local values and their influence on global product design  and their categorization as such must be analized. To have an spectrum that can cover different possibilities we are going to analize examples from Germany as a strong industrial country and predominantly exporter of products and technology; and Mexico as a developing country where design and production are bounded to a strong local culture and limited technology. We will take 10 examples from each one, covering enough variants to identify the most processes that influence the processes of encoding local and global meanings into the objects.

Three main activities of life can help to describe some aspects of the social encoding of meanings: agriculture, preparing and serving food, and leisure. A further example can be taken from another category such as transport.

By analizing examples of good practice in critical regionalism and global design, we can define some guidelines or common patterns to be considered when integrating regional aesthetics into product design.

 
 

1.- Bartelson, Jens ;"Three Concepts of Globalization" ; International Sociology Magazine + June 2000 + Vol 15(2): 180-196, SAGE 


Scope

 

Cultures are composed by elements and processes that are not random or accidental events. Some of these events are caused by foreign forces but is the way that the locals deal with those "external influences" how they manage to give shape to their culture. I believe that the recent globalization wave is loosing the reflection our local cultures. Until some years ago, it was easier to distinguish the origin or "nationality" of some products. Some times we used stereotypes, some of them not always accurate or true, that helped us to identify in some way the origin of those products thanks to some characteristics that we associate with some cultures or countries. The use of stereotypes to distinguish the origin of the objects is one of the codes we use to categorize and signify the objects. Those stereotypes are just a part of all kinds of symbols that we impose to make objects meaningful.

To understand how and why we categorize an object as local or global, first we have to identify and understand the nature of the social and cultural exchange processes associated with the symbolism of the objects. Those processes determine the meanings associated with the objects, and those meanings generate the attributions of local or global. Thus, once we identify those localizing or globalizing processes we'll be able to integrate some regional identity into global products.

The importance of having a regional identity in product design is the influence between cultures in the so called "cross-fertilization" and not just being able to identify the origin of a product. The cultural and product exchange is not a new phenomena. Wars, invations, immigration and commerce have influenced all cultures in a decisive way since long ago. To share, adapt, or appropriate techniques, objects, materials or traditions has been part of the cultural and social development of all nations. Being able to share local knowledge to a global culture through product design was the question that inspired this thesis.

As human beings we share some similar needs, but the solutions in some places are unique, due to regional factors. For example the use of tools for eating: in the western cultures the conclusion was to use cutlery, a fork and a knife, but for the orient cultures it was the use of chopsticks. The finality was the same, but each solution responded to local factors. Each culture has developed their own solutions, sometimes the output is very similar to other cultures in different parts of the globe but sometimes those are based on unique regional characteristics. When different cultures make contact with each other, due to whatever reason, there is always some exchange, not only of war trophies, or gold treasures, but also ideas, traditions, some times even political or religious, and of course of techniques, materials and objects. We will discuss about those exchange, adaptation or rejection processes later. For now it was important just to point out the importance that such exchanges occur. Culture is a social construct, and if we want to build a global culture, we need to share our local knowledge as Kenneth Frampton mentions in his text.

Cultural exchange with local references and solutions must be present in the recent globalization wave. Is important that  local cultures preserve their identity just as it is that they share their solutions with others. The standarization of the global products has lead to a lack of such local input. Some time ago we heard about some European product that was only known to the persons that lived or visited the old continent, but it was indeed a useful product to others. The advertising for such a product was something like this : "Now! The most used product in Germany is here!" When we looked at that product, it seemed to us to fit generally in our stereotype of a German product, whatever that stereotype is. But in more recent times some firms began producing their products in other countries, so the label on them was "Produced in X, but designed and with materials from Y". It was a statement that the product had still some "originating" nationality. But in recent times, products are decontextualized from their local origin to fit into a more globalized culture, not only from their labels or boxes, but also in their aesthetic essence. Nowadays it is almost imposible to distinguish that origin.

 


"The phenomenon of universalization, while being an advancement of mankind, at the same time constitlites a sort of subtle destruetbn, not only of traditional cultures, which might not be an irreparable wrong, but also of what I shall call for the time being the creative nucleus of great civilizations and great culture, that nucleus on the basis of which we interpret life, what I shall call in advance the ethical and mythical nucleus of mankind. The conflict. springs up from there. We have the feeling that this single world civilization at the same time exerts a sort of attrition or wearing away at the expense of the cultural resources which have made the great civilizations of the past. This threat is expressed, among other disturbing effects, by the spreading before our eyes of a mediocre civilization which is the absurd counter-part of what I was just calling elementary culture. Everywhere throughout the world, one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminium atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda, etc. It seems as if mankind, by approaching en masse a basic consumer culture, were also stopped en masse at a subcultural level. Thus we come to the crucial problem confronting nations just rising from underdevelopment. In order to get on to the road toward modernization, is it, necessary to jettison the old cultural past, which has been the raison d'être of a nation?… Whence the paradox: on the one hand, it (the nation) has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, and unfurl this spiritual and cultural revendication before the colonialist's personality...But in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical, and political rationality, something which very often requires the pure and simple abandon of a whole cultural past... It is a fact: every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There is the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization, and take part in universal civilization…"

Paul Ricoeur
"Universal Civilization and National Cultures" (1961), History and Truth,
(Evanston: Northwestern University Press,1965), p. 277
 


The use of stereotypes to categorize the ethnic, cultural or historic origin of the objects, might seem sometimes unfair or full or prejudices (in its negative connotation). But it is precisely those prejudices what Bourdieu refers to as "codes", i.e. we use those codes to label a product, giving it the meanings we consider are appropriate. Then, for others to understand those meanings, they have to use the same code to "decode" those meanings. This codes are imposed by society arbitrarily, so the categorization of the object is also arbitrary and not always fair. But people use those arbitrary codes or prejudices to categorize and impose meanings into the objects regardless of fairness or political correctness. (1) Theories about how meaning is encoded into an object are discussed in chapter 2, which also serves as a theoretical framework for this thesis.

1.- Du Gay and Hall; "Story of the sony walkman" (1997) pp97


Globalization


 

The phenomenon of globalization is not a new event, or better said it is not an event whose origin is limited to the last decade of the XX Century. Although the term "globalization" just started to be used until the mid 90's, the antecedents began with the first contacts between human tribes, and at least 6 major waves of globalization preceding the current one, can be detected. (2)

Throughout the world history, invasions, commerce and other kinds of contact between groups of people, contributed not only to the exchange of goods, objects or ideologies, but also to create links (bonds) between them. These links between groups generate a network that now involves almost every small group of people on this planet. At the beginning those links were weak, but with the time, those paths become exchange and communication routes that need to be enlarged and upgraded from time to time. We can imagine that the first contacts were just sporadic events, and that the route taken by the first adventurers left almost no visible trace the first times, but as the routes had more and more traffic they became more and more unerasable. Then one day, it was necessary to build a stone road. Is at this stage, when man leaves his trace on nature, what we call "civilization".

As the small villages strengthened  the bonds between them, alliances needed to be made in order to negotiate new links with other groups. There were not only peaceful or commercial alliances, but also military alliances. Not all of the exchange between villages occurred in "civilized" manners, and not all of the roads built between them were just to let people travel or bring products. There were also invasions, wars, etc. By negotiation I mean how the people dealt with such events, and not necessarily that they obtained what they wanted. This is how nations were born and groups of villages formed the "nation networks". And just as the first villagers came in contact with other villages, nations came in contact with other nations and started to build a larger network which is called "international". And also like the first links, the first lines were barely visible. In recent years those links became astoundingly strong and registered the heaviest traffic of all times. People, data, products, not only travel through this "international" links, but the influence and negotiations that have to be made between parties are becoming more complex, so it's now impossible to abstain from them or deny their existence.

Just like the independent small villages gathered into nations, now nations tend to form alliances : military, economic or politic. The nation's borders have been surpassed by a greater network of relationships which we now call "globalization". The same fears that the villagers must have felt when their autonomy was put into question when forming a nation, are the fears we are facing now. That conflict of preserving power and autonomy or how to be integrated into a group are major topics within discourses about globalization. Belonging to a group means, accepting some rules that sometimes are contrary to one's beliefs or particular interests. The recent negotiations between nations about globalization are taking place in two different tables. On one side is the political debate about the economic impact of globalization, immigration, standards regulations and preserving power. Meanwhile the debates on how to preserve or adapt cultural identity, values, customs take place on a philosophical plane.

The links that form this network are not just roads or telecommunication lines, but it refers to any kind of cultural exchange between people. So not all of the individuals have direct contact with all other groups, but they remain connected by the same network. Along this network not all the goods or ideologies can travel everywhere. We can imagine them as small signals or impulses that have to pass along filters that regulate the traffic. A signal can travel along the network, but in order to be received and interpreted by others some rules have to be followed. First, it needs clearance to travel along some paths (regulatory processes). Second, it has to use a certain code to be accepted or understood (interpretative processes). Regulatory processes are usually set by the governing authorities, while the interpretative processes are set and done by the population. There are a number of theories about the interpretative processes. We are going to discuss some of them in chapter 2. Let us start by now just by saying that those processes set the terms in which product design ought to be made. First by meeting the trade and exchange regulations, and then by using some interpretation codes in order to be understood and accepted.

One of the first attempts to create a multinational code was the so called "international style". But the term international is now surpassed by the new global philosophy. As we said, international means interconnectedness of nations, i.e. it acknowledges the autonomy of each nation and the relations between them are merely bridges; while in global, those relations are links and the nations accept to be a part of a bigger entity. Just like the walk paths became roads, the international style and other styles that derived from it are becoming what we could call "global design".

We mentioned that during the negotiations towards any alliance, nations or villages fought for a compromise between the group's interest and preserving their own autonomy or privileges. Once again, here is what Ricoeur says: " There is the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization, and take part in universal civilization…" (3) While the international style searched for a code that could be understood and interpreted by the different nations, it didn't contemplate the possibility of integrating elements with regional character. That is the reason why the discourses about globalization in design fields take such radical nuances. The battle to preserve the cultural identity cannot take place in an international discourse, but rather in a global basis to get some balance.

While the international style remains a closed code, global design can be a language opened to explore and integrate the cultural diversity of the people that are joining this new global alliance. As separate nations, we just used a conventional code in order to communicate, but now that we are starting to define an official language for all nations is important to contemplate an intercultural integration and negotiate the parameters of what we are starting to call " a global village", which is in fact a "global nation".

My proposal consists in demonstrating the possibility of integrating regional aesthetic values into a global product design (or not).


 

2.- Therborn, "Globalizations are Plural"
3.- Ricoeur, "Universal Civilization and National Cultures" (1961) p. 277



 
Key Issues

 

Objects are cultural because they are associated with social practices and with a certain group of people and places.

Processes must be seen not as isolated events but articulated and interconnected. This linkage-articulation is not absolute or essential for all times and cultures.

Meanings are not automatically present in an object because of its colour or shape. It's the social practices and the users that make products meaningful. 

Elements determined at production (design) are adapted (decoded) by use. Other meanings are imposed (encoded) by the users. 

The repetitive use of an object generates what is called "shared memory" which is a defining process in the formation of collective identity.



The processes of adaptation/appropriation of objects are determining in the meaning and values associated to that object thanks to the social practices involved with its use :

- When an object is associated with rituals and activities that are considered to be "local", that object will be categorized as "own", local, vernacular, and such tags. 

- When an object is associated with practices that are considered to be part of a globalized culture, that object gets the attribute of global.


Which processes and factors are related to a "global" product design ?
How to recognise and categorize those processes, factors and elements?

Which are the homogenizing /polarising processes that are present in product design?

How to identify the processes that cause integration (acceptance) or rejection of a product on a global or local market?

How and why a product is welcomed as a global product by a group? (homogenization)

Why in some cases the "global aesthetic" is rejected by a group? (polarization)


Which are the processes that cause homogenization (globalization)?
How to recognise those processes, factors and/or elements?

Which are the processes and elements that cause polarization (localization)?
How to recognise those processes, factors and/or elements?

Have those processes, factors and elements something in common that makes them part of one or the other group?


Objects not only have a practical function, they also have encoded meanings. Some of those meanings are representative of  events and ideologies troughout times and cultures. This can be seen as a deliberate act of imposing encoded meanings acording to the social practices of use, and interpretation that are valid at the moment of creation (design).



A series of products that can help to understand the social processes associated with the integration of local values and their influence on global product design  and their categorization as such must be analized. To have an spectrum that can cover different possibilities we are going to analize examples from Germany as a strong industrial country and predominantly exporter of products and technology; and Mexico as a developing country where design and production are bounded to a strong local culture and limited technology. We will take 10 examples from each one, covering enough variants to identify the most processes that influence the processes of encoding local and global meanings into the objects.


 
Framework

 

There are two major trends in cultural studies. On one hand is the study of symbols as vehicles of meanings in culture which is called semiotics. On the other hand the schemes that define the processes of formation or construction of  culture through social practices, activities or rituals. These are called "discoursive formations". (4) Despite their differences, both perspectives are part of anthropology or sociology, and their philosophers use the analysis of objects as examples to prove their thesis focusing on the description of society and the formation of culture.

The focus of this thesis is not to prove any of these theories or to postulate a scheme to describe society or define the concept of culture. Our goal is to analyse and understand the elements within the regional social practices that influence the integration of meanings and symbolism into what we call global products. To do that, we are going to use some of these schemes and theories, not to define society, but to analyse the signifying processes of the objects. In this case some of the postulates of these theories  can help us to understand how the objects obtain meanings that are local or global, how those meanings are associated with the objects and interpreted through the practices and activities of every day's life.

Not all of these theories can be used "as they are", because they were formulated for other objective, for that reason, we are going to discuss and analyse some of the relevant theories concerning the processes of integration of meanings first, to define the parameters that can offer a sound theoretical framework consistent with the objectives of this thesis. Due to their changing nature, the analysis of meanings is not a fixed system that is absolute for all times and places. It requires sometimes observation from different perspectives to get a glimpse of the whole picture. Therefore is important to take a look at different philosophers' approaches to understand our relationships with the objects and their impact in our culture. Not all of these theories adapt to our goals, but it's necessary to mention some opposite views to justify the reasons why a certain posture is adopted. It's also important to define some of the concepts and in which context they are used, such as : Culture, Globalization, Regionalism, etc. Some definitions on those keywords will be included at the end of the thesis.


4.- Hall; "Representations" (1997) pp 6



 
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The Research project was under supervision of Dr. Clarence Aasen (Head of the School of Design), Dr.Vladimir Mako, and Dr.Vishvajit Pandya  until july 2001
© 2000-2001 
  Creative Commons License   This work by Fernando Vallejo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License.