Mary Milliken | Art and Design


Design Ethics: Inspiration or Appropriation?

One person’s culture is not another person’s talking point

Hand-made Yoruba beaded chair featured by   The English Room

Hand-made Yoruba beaded chair featured by The English Room

Covering textiles in chevrons and including the world “tribal” in the product name is just plain gross, but fashion houses and design companies still do it. Why is this? As a designer, it’s important to factor ethics into my design work. This boils down to being thoughtful about where my ideas come from. I don’t pretend to be more enlightened than most, but I believe apologizing after the fact or hiding behind one’s ignorance does not excuse a lack of forethought.

I currently work as an in-house designer for a rural-based company whose employees are majority white. As such, I find it particularly important for us to have conversations about where our ideas come from and be selective in choosing what we produce for our customers. Recently, I had a discussion with a product manager about drawing inspiration from Yoruba designs for our new line of furniture. Yoruba beadwork and design is beautiful, colorful, and vibrant. I can practically hear the words, “fits our brand” when I look at Yoruba furniture and can understand the temptation to imitate its design. Yoruba designs, however, should not be designated as a “trend” or “seasonal” or someone’s latest “brand inspo.”

There is a societal tendency to romanticize and exoticize anything deemed as “other,” including but not limited to locations or cultures that were once under western, colonial rule. This is especially obvious in the world of design. For example, a quick Google search for “Yoruba beaded furniture” lead me to this website where one can buy Yoruba beaded chairs. The website (called The English Room) labels the chairs as an “obsession du jour” and writes:

“[The chairs] are traditionally used by the kings and queens of the Yoruba tribe in West Africa. All have a wooden frame and the upholstery consists of thousands of tiny strung beads laid upon a fabric backing. Great for garden chairs or in the home, and always a talking point.”

I’ve often heard the argument, “nothing is original,” which implies that everything produced today is an imitation of something else, but it is my opinion that any designer with a modicum of creativity can draw inspiration from something they see without duplicating it and/or exploiting it. At the very least, they should be mindful of history and respectful of people. But at what point does inspiration become appropriation? Where is the line? How can we confidently tell the difference? I do not have a clear-cut answer to this, so I offer you this article to read because it tackles these ideas and I can’t say it better myself. My favorite quote is:

When something is made into a trend, that thing is calibrated to something that is passing. This is why it is insulting when a certain cultural feature, which people have adapted and used in their different struggles, is reduced to the must-have item for the season. Or the whim of a superstar’s costume. It’s why Katy Perry had to apologize for donning a geisha costume for her AMA performance (among many other similar cases of cultural appropriation) Mic writes, “Between the lack of Asian women on stage, the heavy-handed use of bowing and shuffling around in the choreography, and the ethno-confused set and costume design, Perry presented her viewers a one-dimensional Eastern fantasy drawn by a Western eye right out of the gate.”

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Thanks for reading!

<3, M