In grad school I discovered the Grammar of Ornament, a book every designer should know. This divine collection of decorative design from Asia, Africa, and Europe was curated by architect and designer Owen Jones in the mid 19th century. Grammar of Ornament is a rich documentation of global design aesthetics and a beautiful historical record of visual culture. This library of ornamentation continues to be a resource of inspiration for the graphic, textile, fashion, and architectural design industries.
Back then this inspiration led to a feast of re-appropriation. Because of it's timing (it was released in the middle of the Industrial Revolution where the textile industry flourished) many of the designs found on these pages were re-interpreted into clothing, upholstery, and wallpaper to cater to western tastes. Suddenly, consumers who could not travel far and wide now had access to Indian paisley inspired clothing, upholstery printed with Islamic arabesques and textiles with Pacific Island block prints (among many other designs).
This source-book had become a vehicle to transfer and share visual culture identities. This book was groundbreaking.
I've always enjoyed paging through this delightful collection because of the rich colors and content.
Recently, at a flea-market, I found a vendor who sold individual pages from one of the original Grammar of Ornament books. The pages were beautiful. Despite the aged paper the colors popped off the page as if they had just been printed. Going through and admiring the stack of plastic covered sheets, I was trying to decide if I would cough up the money to take one home.
Then I fell upon the page you see above. It was my favorite of the stack because of the bold graphic patterns, but I was stopped in my tracks when I read "Savage Tribes." This term was referring to the textile designs of the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific Islands including Hawaii.
The word "savage" pinched a little. We all know the history. We all know the weight of that word and why that term had been used. What pinched most was that in this book that every designer should know if not have in their library, in this remarkable piece of history documenting global designs, it also captured the bigotry and prejudice of that time.
Today, not much has changed in how we record our history. We still use books to capture the world and people around us — and more recently television and new media have given us more resources and platforms to tell those stories. Sadly, not much has changed in who tells the stories, whose stories are told, and what is celebrated. (i.e. Django.)
Grammar of Ornament is an example of how a group of people were perceived and mislabeled; and with the notoriety and popularity of the book, how it had become one of the many ways for that misguided perception to spread.
The idea of authoring and curating our own narratives has been a consistent topic of conversation among my many designer and artist friends.
Unlike our parents and grandparents or the indigenous people belonging to "savage tribes" we now have access to tools, resources, and platforms that allows us to capture and share the stories of our world from our own perspectives (without the fear of being abused or threatened). Big stories, small stories, serious ones and silly ones; we don't have to wait for a journalist or a historian to document who we are.
So — how will you harness the opportunity to tell your story the way it should be told? So you're not mislabeled or stereotyped. What will you record and share about your community, village, generation, family, people, or yourself?
And why do you think it's important to do so?