Pamela Hovland alerted us to a wonderful essay posted on Design Observer recently, called The Subtle Technology of Indian Artisanship; it is about how “everywhere you look in India you will find evidence of the maker’s hand.” A sign painter, faced with a drain opening smack in the middle of his underwear ad, transformed it into a “navel”. The bucket of a massive backhoe (below) is embellished with a welded pattern of metal strips, a bit of beauty in a most unlikely place. Ken Botnick and Ira Raja explore the ways these kinds of embellishments are “a means of celebrating life” in India; they also explore what it means to be “a maker” – anywhere.

…”on India’s streets, the act of making functional things — cups, chairs, signs, books — is creativity at its most direct expression; meeting a need. Embellishing that object, making it special, requires that the maker take time with the thing to ask more questions, not only about its function, but also about the person who will use it, and about how to distinguish that object from the universe of things that surround it. Embellishing… simultaneously makes the object more reflective of the maker’s distinct personality and brings it into the shared cultural values of beauty and function. Embellishment delights because it surprises. It is found in completely unsuspecting places, like the bucket of a backhoe. It takes ordinariness and celebrates it as if to say, “Hah! You didn’t find this beautiful, this lump of dung, but here it is and it is beautiful.”

We loved learning things you can do with saris that we never imagined, which made us see them in a new way, like this fence made of saris…

“The simplicity of the sari’s shape also gives rise to a spectacular variety in designs of the textile itself, inviting infinite elaboration of color and pattern as invented by the textile weavers, printers and dyers. The rectangle further invites adaptive reuse once it is too threadbare to be worn as a sari any longer. Across India, old saris find new lives as pillows, pouches, ropes, lightweight blankets, hammocks for babies and more. They are even used as fences in Rajasthan. Such applications would be impossible if the original design were not so ingeniously simple, so functionally pure. A new sari would hold the wind too well to be a useful fence, and if its shape were more complex, its afterlife would be limited to ragstock. The sari, therefore, in its simplicity represents a mode of design thinking grounded in adaptability, innovation and sustainability based in craft that is distinctively Indian.”

The authors weren’t waxing poetic when they talked about making a lump of dung beautiful. Women who own dung huts in Rajasthan decorate the exteriors as a way taking them out of the realm of ordinary and finite, in a mix of defiance and celebration.

This essay made us believe, more than ever, in the possibilities inherent in every moment, in every ordinary thing…

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3 replies on “the brilliant design thinking of everyday india

  1. Absolutely agree. I was in Delhi earlier this year (first time) and was so struck at how the functional and decorative are so integrated. As you say, evidence of the maker’s hand and imagination evident everywhere.

  2. Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  3. I’m so glad you included India in your design sweep. I was in New Delhi and Chandigargh and was launched by the awesome design everywhere–from stacks of handmade bricks to charcoal kilns to painted advertisements on so many low walls to wild TaTa Motors trucks to the columns and houses of intricately molded cow dung of which I have numerous pictures. Thanks again. Pamolu Oldham

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