cultural differences

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"

A Look Back to the Early Days: Italian Design School

   Vespa Bianca by  Federico Melani

 

Vespa Bianca by Federico Melani

Today I'll take us back a few years to my time here in Florence as an Interior Design student. One of the many benefits of studying outside of your native culture is the almost instant increase of awareness. You become instantly conscious of alternative life-styles and solutions to every day problems. This comes up in nearly everything you do...from the way you eat and dress, to the way you move, and interact with the city around you. Brand perceptions, social norms and even world history seems to morph before your eyes. Match that with the study of a new discipline and you're in for quite an exciting ( and sometimes bumpy) ride. 

I was recently reading an article I wrote six years ago for my school blog and it made me realize that this broadening of perception has changed my views quite significantly over time. The constant "brain stretching" and cultural comparisons takes a lot of energy. I can say over the course of six plus years that this has not stopped, but maybe has become more "realistic" over time. My initial response to see everything new as "wonderful" has evolved into a general sense of acceptance of the pros and cons of my past homes and my current one. Resulting in a mitigated desire to rank. It has now become a matter not of which is "best", but which is most appropriate for my goals and values at this time.

Feel free to read my student blog entry on the Lorenzo de' Medici Interior Design Blog.