Vernacular Design

Srishti Documents: Art, Design and Creative Practices in South Asia

In devising sustainable and resilient design solutions in the face of climate change, depleting natural resources and the challenges of disposing of used objects, it is important for designers to understand approaches to traditional forms of object creation and its integration with life processes, which could offer valuable lessons for future making. The choice of materials and their use in constructing different components of pre-modern structures demonstrates the concept that no entity exists in insolation from its context. The objective of this project, therefore, is to look at the pre-modern objects and traditional forms of object making in South Asia. The special focus would be to evaluate and reveal the conceptual framework and the design thinking behind the vernacular designs of utilitarian objects generated by different South Asian cultures. Undertaking such a study is not only important in the context of ecologically sustainable design solutions, but it is also eminently feasible since many of these traditions are practiced even today.

Design as a distinct activity in object making come into its own during industrial revolution. The mechanization of production clove the mind that imagines and hand that makes, which were united in a single craftsman earlier. With the machines taking over the process of making, the designer emerged as model maker that were to be copied by the machines. Pioneers of modern design saw design combined with mass production as a force for good that could not only bring about positive change in the material conditions of people, but also transform the consciousness. Schools and movements of design in Europe had professed design’s capacity to improve people’s lives. Functionalism became the ideological basis of all modern design approaches that converged into what came to be known as International Style. Maximization of utility, elimination of ornamentation, abstract and geometric patterns, smooth surfaces and straight lines are at the core of modern aesthetics in design.

To the early modernist design slogan “Form Follows Function” was added, “Function is Beauty.” However, wholesale embracing of modern materials and technics of production resulted in complete rejection of many positive values of pre-modern approaches to object making.

Although design as an independent activity connected with object production did not exist prior to industrialization, design thinking definitely informed how the objects were made in different shapes and forms. The cultures in Indian subcontinent have been producing, for over 3 millennia, innumerable number of diverse functional objects using wide-ranging materials, from natural fibers, grasses and clay to metal alloys. These objects of everyday use are created in many shapes and forms to serve different social and biological needs. Production of these objects could not have been possible without design thinking and a deep understanding that guided the maker in bringing together function, form and aesthetics. Unfortunately, there are no written manuscripts that articulate theoretical understanding and document practices because the knowledge and methods of production were transmitted orally through apprentice system. Although there are several studies of traditional crafts, we are looking for research that seeks to comprehend the traditional forms of object making by articulating the thought process and practices that are embedded in the ecological and cultural contexts of these objects.

We have tentatively framed our research in understanding design thinking that underlay vernacular designs into three interconnected approaches: Regimes of Form and Function, Ornamentation is not superfluous and Ritual Initiations of Objects.

We welcome submission of ideas on vernacular designs to be covered under this series. Send an email to us with your idea in an abstract from of 350 words to

The Vernacular Design