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Can Design Preserve Culture?

On the hunt for the perfect cup of Turkish coffee, I ended up at the 600 year old Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and stumbled upon an object that offered clues to creating culturally meaningful design.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

Wandering through a labyrinth of aisles, stalls and touting shopkeepers my wife and I found a small lane with several crowded Turkish coffee shops in a row. We found couple of seats no higher than my knees and sat down, wedging between a Turkish family and a carpet salesman. Quickly we ordered two Turkish coffees from the handsome (according to my wife handsomeness seems to run with Turkish men) shop owner. “Sweet?” he suggested.

Sitting down for a cup of coffee

While he was preparing the coffees we had a clear view of his actions. He began by placing two teaspoons of what seemed like coffee dust into a tapering, cylindrical copper container with a long handle coming from two-thirds the way up its side. I later learned this is called a cezve (pronounced Jez-veh). He then placed two small espresso-cup full of water into the copper vessel and placed it over the burner of a small stove. He kept the cezve low on the flame until it began to boil when he deftly lifted it, allowing the frothing tarry foam to recede. He repeated this once more and poured the thick black coffee into two espresso sized cups set into a tiny metal cage. When he placed these cups before us he also gave us tiny glasses of water as well. “It prepares you for the coffee” he said.

The foam that defines great Turkish coffee

The cup was perfect. At the bottom was a deep sandbar of coffee dust that left a thin coating in my mouth. The last of the water washed it down.

So began our next hunt – I wanted to buy a cezve so I could learn to make Turkish coffee at home.

The first cezve I found was also copper and beaten on its side with hundreds of dimples around it with a shorter handle that had a knot of metal coming together. It was a ubiquitous model found throughout the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul and the tourist shops all over the world. It was cheap and looked it. I moved on. The next cezve was similarly decorated. And the next. And the next.

This is the most popular cezve design I found

I found decorated cezves everywhere I went. I was looking for something more modern, without decoration. From Kappadokya to Pamakkule to Ephesus I looked in vain for an undecorated cezve.

I finally gave up at the international airport in Turkey. As we departed for Slovenia I had crazy ideas for designing my own cezve, one finally free of decoration.

Slovenia is a world apart from Turkey. It is like landing in the forest of Hansel and Gretel, whom you half expect to greet you in customs. As we toured through the museum of Slovenian history I was surprised by the spare and simple design aesthetic that the Soviet Union had shaped from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman culture.

Slovenian design is striking and modern, influenced by the austerity of communist USSR

While exploring the capital of Lubljanja, we stopped for a coffee near the main square. To our surprise they had Turkish coffee. Wanting a fix, I ordered one. Seconds later my eyes bulged with shock.

The barrista pulled out a beautiful spun copper cezve that was completely devoid of decoration. The spout was even visibly formed by bending from its original cylinder. Would they sell me the cezve? And come to think of it, why is there Turkish coffee so far from Turkey? Most importantly, where did they get it? Yes, they could sell me one she said and they are designed and made locally in Slovenia.

The Slovenian designed cezve

It turns out Turkish coffee is quite popular all over Eastern Europe from the influence of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Over the 600 years of the Ottoman Empire, the cezves and coffee customs slowly localized. At its breakup in 1929, the Ottoman Empire left behind a deep and rich culture firmly embedded into the lives and objects of people all over Europe and Asia.

The cezves of the Ottoman Empire share a basic form in common – a wide, heavy base tapering to a narrower top with a long handle to hold the cezve over the flame. All of these features have a function. The heavy base distributes heat evenly, the copper material efficiently transmits it. The narrow top traps the coffee grounds and the spout lets as little grounds out as possible. The handle is long to dissipate the heat generated by the conductive copper as it’s held over the flame. Its form evolved to perfection over hundreds of years.  But that’s where the similarities end. The Turkish ones tend to have hammered marks and decorated handles using the motifs found in their architecture.  The further north you go the less decorated they become, until the Slovenian models have the austerity of the Bauhaus and machine efficiency of modernism.

Black enamel cezve

Brass cezve with motif

Enamel cezve from Czech

Recent cezve design with sticks for handles representing today’s values of environmentalism and nature

The globalization of the cezve designs through time and distance leads to an interesting hypothesis:

If form preserves function, decoration preserves culture.

Form is born from what the design must do – it is the (obvious) result of the interaction between people and problem to solve. Decoration (or lack thereof) is added to a design to make it something people love and relate to. It humanizes the design. If we examine design through history, the first art could be found in the decoration of the human body and soon after, in the decoration of pottery, bowls and tools. Archaeologists found decoration to be so tied to the cultures that produced them they use it to identify the origin of ancient objects. During the industrial revolution in 1919, the Bauhaus designers began a rebellion against decoration, with Adolph Loos going so far to call it a “crime”. But this is really just the latest in the fashion of decoration made global by the mass production of the industrial age. It certainly will not be the last trend. But it brings up an interesting problem unique to the globalized present.

Pottery sherds grouped according to motif and cultural origin

In the age of a global market, what culture do we design for? Will we end up with an averaged global culture that continues exporting Western culture remixed with local tastes? Will we be able to use decoration to package culture and experience it through design?

A quick examination of websites may provide a clue. If we look at shopping websites throughout the world we begin to see formal similarities and massive decorative (stylistic) differences.

USA - www.amazon.com

China - www.dangdang.cn

Russia - www.ozon.com

India – www.flipkart.com

Although the overall layout of these pages are largely the same, preserving the function of navigating online shopping, we can see culture being preserved in the style of the pages around the world. Dangdang has popups, flashing lights, and an endless scroll page meant to impress with quantity and the boldness of modern China. Ozon has a central blonde cowgirl in ripped jeans, almost comically Russian. Amazon focuses on economy and whitespace effusing American modernism. Flipkart resembles Amazon the most, reflecting the broad English literacy and westernization of India but with less skin.

These qualities were designed into the sites unconsciously by their designers. We are products of our culture; designers create the beauty that they know.

Hopefully, by understanding the relationship between form, function, decoration and culture, our future global designers will be able to create designs that are locally meaningful while remaining globally relevant.

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