Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Three Orders of Design: Lessons from Northeast India

The Three Orders of Design: Lessons from our study of the baskets from Northeast India

Prof M P Ranjan
Design overview lecture delivered at the “Uttar Purva Utsav” organized by the Crafts Council of India at the “Dilli Haat” on 2nd February 2009 to celebrate and promote the crafts of Northeast India in association with the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India.

The lecture was simultaneously translated into Hindi by Ms Asha Bakshi, Dean Fashion Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi.

Image01: Speakers at the “Uttar Purva Utsav” organized by the Crafts Council of India at Dilli Haat in early February 2009.

This invitation to speak at the “Uttar Purva Utsav” organized by the Crafts Council of India at the “Dilli Haat” gives me the opportunity to reflect on my three decade old association with the crafts of the Northeastern Region of India and to ponder on the lessons that we have learned about design and bamboo from the craftsmen of the Northeast over the years since our first contact with their work in the field in late 1979. We began our year long fieldwork November 1979 in the Northeast as part of the project sponsored by the All India Handicrafts Board in those days, now the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts [DC (H)], to study the bamboo and cane crafts of the region which resulted in a book which was eventually published in 1986 by the DC (H) and the National Institute of Design (NID), titled “Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India” by M P Ranjan, Nilam Iyer and Ghanshyam Pandya. (download book here as PDF file 35 mb size) It is also an opportune occasion to connect once again with the resources that were generated by that project particularly in the form of the very large collection of baskets that were collected in the field as part of our study and these are today available at the National Crafts Museum and I am told that these are on special display to celebrate the crafts of Northeast and in conjunction with this particular event at the Dilli Haat. The craftsmen and the crafts promoters are invited to visit the National Crafts Museum at Pragati Maidan and see for themselves the quality of crafts that is still a living tradition of the region as these products are still in active use across the region but times are changing fast and these may not remain that way for very long. Digital pdf copies of my book can be downloaded from my website and in-print copies of the paperback edition (2004) are available from both NID and the DC (H) and the original hard-bound edition (1986) is now out of print.

Image02: The Paikawng from Mizoram, side and top view seen with drawings of the base, sides and rim construction and the detail of the base strengthening detail using cane binding over a bamboo base.

I must share the learning that we were able to glean from our journeys into the Northeast as well as from our interactions with the local craftsmen which was followed by a period of deep study that we could invest into the collection of 400 baskets that we had gathered during our field work in the Northeastern region. Besides giving us numerous insights about bamboo that were invaluable we were also quite surprised to see the deep appreciation of design principles that were both applied by the craftsmen as well as something that we found embedded in the range of products that we had collected in an extremely selective manner during our year long field work in the seven states of the Northeastern region. Now Sikkim has been included in the definition of the Northeastern Region and rightly so, since these states share so many common characteristics with each other while keeping their individual identities intact. Learning from the Northeast’s craftmen was an exhilarating experience and in all very enriching experience. As a designer and a design teacher traveling with two colleagues through a culture that was rich with knowledge about bamboo and design it was a stimulating experience for us and a huge source of new learning from the field. This learning we tried to capture in our book about the Bamboo and Cane Crafts of the Northeastern Region and while the content may look like a normal documentation a look at the back of the book will reveal a meta-structure of information and local knowledge contained in two indexes, one a “Technical index” that captures all the nuances of the local wisdom across many fields and the other a “Subject index” which links and makes accessible word concepts as they appear across the book. Our sense of amazement at each product that we saw and the level of detail to which the thought process had helped evolve that product was always a source of great pleasure, amazement and admiration. From all these products I would like to draw out one specific example, The Paikawng, a Mizo basket used for carrying firewood, not because it stands above the rest but simply because it is one of many products that come to my mind as I stand here and reflect on our deep learning from the field about design itself. I will therefore use the example of the Paikawng to set out the boundaries and contours of the three orders of design as they appear in the fine hand crafted baskets of Northeast India.

Inage03: A general understanding of structure of baskets from Northeast India from our book along with two particular baskets from the Tengnoupal hill district of Manipur State, one closed-weave for grain and the other open-weave for grass and fire-wood.

Let me first give you an overview of the three orders of design that I shall be dwelling on over the next few minutes. What are these and how do they relate to our understanding of design and in particular how these can help us use design to further our objective of building better products and systems for the people of the Northeastern region? The fine detailing in the baskets from the Northeast represent the climax of a bamboo culture and the field study and our book tries to pay homage to that spirit. The three orders of design are listed here and I shall proceed to explain how these were appreciated in the Paikawng and in all the other products that were equally rich and deserving of our attention.

The First Order of Design:

The Order of Design of Material, Form & Structure
This level of design is recognised by all people and is the most commonly discussed attribute. Here material, structure and technology are the key drivers of the design and these help shape the form that we eventually see and appreciate in the product. We can appreciate the product as an honest expression of structure and material used and transformed to realize a particular form that is both unique as well as functional. It is here that skill and understanding of the craftsmen are both used to shape the product through an appropriate transformation of the material with an understanding of its properties and with an appreciation of its limitations and possibilities.

Image04: Description of the open-weave structure and its varients from the Northeast and the Paikawng shown in use for fire-wood carrying from the pages of our book.

Let us take the Paikawng and examine it at the level of material and form – this basket is made of long strands of stout bamboo splits that are first interlaced to form a square base before these are bent up to form the sides of the basket. In forming the sides these very same splits form elongated hexagons that are a result of the three horizontal bands that anchor the inclined verticals between the base and the rim structure. At the rim these splits are each divided laterally into a number of sub-splits which lend themselves to a form of braiding so as to create a wide braided band that is both soft as well as very strong but being flexible. The material of the split is thus transformed at each stage, the base as flat and wide, the sides as thick and stiff and the rim as soft and flexible, while still remaining one single piece of bamboo that is responding to a particular structural need at the point where it is needed. The four corners of the square base are covered by a interlacing knot, each made of a length of cane splits which does not unravel easily if some of the overlapping strands are cut while the basket is in use. Cane, here is used sparingly to conserve costs and to save the critical part of the bamboo basket from friction and were and tear at the corners which are the most vulnerable parts of this basket when in contact with the ground. Further, this additional feature can be renewed or replaced in case of damage in use and the whole basket would therefore have an extended life. This lends the basket a degree of toughness that is essential for the intended function, which is to carry rough cut fire-wood from the field to the home and this brings us to the second order of design.

The Second Order of Design:

The Order of Design for Function & Feeling – Impact & Effect
This level is influenced by utility and feeling and is largely determined by the marketplace as well as by the culture in which it is located. Here aesthetics and utility are informed by the culture and the economics of the land. We can sense and feel the need for the product and the trends are determined by the largely intangible attributes through which we assess the utility and price that we are willing to pay for this particular offering and this is quite independent of its cost.

Image05: Pages from the book “Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India” showing the construction of the Paikawng in line drawings of base, sides and rim structure with description of its uses at home and at work.

In order to examine this level of design we will need to compare similar products across a number of different social and cultural situations. Firewood baskets are made by many communities of the Northeast and each of these have a distinctive form that is informed by the asthetic preferences of that community. The Paikawng offers the Mizo a particular form and structure and for lighter applications they have a sister product called the Emsin which is lighter and smaller than the Paikawng but with very similar structural and formal characteristics of the latter. The other tribes have distinctly different forms that are arrived at by differences in the size, shape, contours as well as the shape of the hexagon used to form the sides of the baskets in question while addressing the same set of functions that the Paikawng addresses for the Mizos.

The Third Order of Design:

The Order of Design for Value – Meaning and Purpose
This level is shaped by the higher values in our society and by the philosophy, ethics and spirit that we bring to our products and events as well as all the associated services and the stories that we can tell about the relationships between these entities and our lives. At this level value unfolds through the production of meaning in our lives and in providing us with our identities and these products becomes a medium of communication itself, all about ourselves. It is held in the politics and ethics of the society and is at the heart of the spirit in which the products are produced and used in that society. There are deeply held meanings that are integral to the form, structure as well as some of the essential features which may in some cases be the defining aspects of that product, making it recognizable as being from a particular tribe or community. These features define the ownership of the form, motif or character of the product and these are usually supported by the stories and legends about their origin and these give meaning to the lives of the people for whom they are made.

Image06: Views and description of the Emsin, a sister product of the Paikawng which is used for lighter tasks and as a ‘fashion’ product by the Mizo youth for visits to the bazaar and other light chores.

The Paikawng has this distinctive character and can be recognized as a typical Mizo product both by the Mizos themselves as well as by those around them. The braided band at the rim has a unique name in the Mizo language – it is called “vawkpuidang phiar”, meaning “the braided pattern or palete of the pig or sow” which has a similar knitted pattern. These stories bring value to the product that goes far beyond its material and utility value that is usually embedded in such functional products. We need to recognize the characteristics that these three orders of design bring to the contemporary products of our own society and in doing so we can learn to enhance the value that it brings to the market as well as tone the quality standards that are applied to each instance of these products at the various stages of production, marketing and utilization in the society.

All three layers are important and we need to learn to appreciate our creations along all three axis if we are to reach a sustainable offering in the handicrafts sector in the days ahead. Design therefore has a number of layers that are addressed in our traditional artifacts and when we embark on the making of our new and innovative products for new markets we will need to pay a great deal of attention to all three orders of the design spectrum if we are to reach a semblence of sustainability and order in our creative offerings for the future.

Download the book here: 35 MB PDF
M P Ranjan, Nilam Iyer and Ghanshyam Pandya, "Traditional Wisdom: Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India", Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India, New Delhi, 1986 (HB) & 2004 (PB)
Prof M P Ranjan

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