Paradigms...and Italian Laundry

Every so often my mind wanders back to moments that have challenged me in some way. Sometimes it's a way of working out the conflict or dilemma in retrospect in order to resolve lingering frustration and future challenges in more constructive ways...and sometimes the memories are just good for a laugh...

One funny moment often resurfaces from my early design school days in Italy...it all started with a washing machine. Even as a new design student I was always most interested in the front-end problem solving side of the design process. I wanted to analyze what is typically done and compare it with alternative solutions to find the best material, layout, etc. that would meet the specific needs of the project. This way of thinking led me to laundry while working on an apartment layout is in design school.

I grew up in the midwestern United States (OH to be precise) where laundry rooms exist (assuming there is adequate floor space). Another typical solution was a laundry closet, usually in a hallway or landing somewhere. I also had a grandmother who had one such laundry closet in her master bedroom. In summary:

American paradigm = washer AND dryer in a designated laundry space.

Enter Italy...

In Italy it is rare that a home have a washer and a dryer. There is usually one (relatively) small washing machine to wash and then the clothes are hung to dry (yes, the towels are always crunchy...expatriate living is not for the rigid mind or delicate skin). This washing machine is usually placed in the kitchen. In summary:

Italian paradigm = washer only, placed in kitchen.

As I set to work on my single-occupant apartment, I began to think the  laundry process through. The diagram looked something like this:

Laundry Diagram 1.jpg
clothes diagram 2.jpg

I believed that by putting the washing machine in the bedroom closet, I could reduce the amount of time and energy spent carrying laundry all over the house. You could take off your clothes in the laundry area and save folding time by placing them directly back on the hangers in the closet.  Nothing complex, just a simple idea to reduce the necessary steps of a tedious household chore. This did not go over well with my Italian design instructor who told me "the washer is always in the kitchen, that's where it goes.". I found myself in the middle of the first of what would be many battles over cultural paradigms and their place in design.

My stance is that paradigms can be important...we all must drive on the same side of the road...people should be paid for their work, etc...they are also important in defining problems and working towards solutions, but they are NOT the "be all, end all" to be adhered to in problem solving. In fact, they aren't often our biggest challenges? Shouldn't we, as designers, look past these "norms" to make improvements in the way we interact with our products, environments and services? Isn't the breaking of paradigms essential to real innovation? Yes. And so I went forth and put the washer in the bedroom closet (by hand...on a roll of vellum...did I mention this was Design 101?).

One of the most interesting things about living in another country is the collision of your old ways of doing things and the ways of your new home. What you start to realize is how similar people really are...one may always use an electric dryer, the other may always put the washer in the kitchen, but they both believe one thing...that they are RIGHT. The beauty of living on both sides? The concept of "right" ceases to exist. And that's when the magic happens.

For more on the twisting and bending of cultural models, please stay tuned for "The Bidet is Essential; and Other Battles Lost"