Incorporating Cultural Design without the Cultural Appropriation

In this day and age, it’s good to be aware of what cultural appropriation is and what it means. In terms of interior design, this isn’t only for fear of offending anyone. When a home or business is designed with no consideration of cultural meaning, it can leave the homeowner with egg on their face.  

Do the research

When picking design motifs for your home, make sure you know what it is you’re putting on your walls and shelves. An old friend once told a story of a homeowner who ordered wallpaper labeled with a “Scandanavian Fylfot” design on it without seeing the product up close. It looked great from a distance, but it turned out that a fylfot is an historic word for a swastika. Needless to say the homeowner decided to send that wallpaper back and order something else.

That example is extreme. Still, there are plenty of ways to miss the cultural context of a design or symbol. What if you pulled an entire room design together only to find later out the room you modeled it after was a Venetian brothel? What if you accidentally incorporated a royal house’s coat of arms into your entryway? Don’t stumble into overdoing a design and looking tacky! Good research will help you to avoid ending up with a house that looks like a B movie set.

Don’t be like that person who gets a Japanese kanji tattoo only to find out it says “BBQ Grill.”

Avoid the sacred

Along with doing your research to avoid cultural appropriation, make sure that you avoid sacred symbols. In the United States many people have a very lax relationship with religion. That isn’t the case for many other cultures. Save yourself the headache, and step away from the dreamcatchers, yin yangs, and Eyes of Horus.

There are plenty of ways to add cultural design elements without appropriation of sacred symbols. Chinese design elements offer geometric patterns and use of contrasting colors, without falling back on Taoist jade empire statues. Mexican and South American motifs use vibrant colors and stylized animals, but please leave the sugar skulls to the people who actually celebrate Dias de los Muertos. They may be very visible and common symbols, but robbing them of context and using them for window dressing is rude. Try something new and exciting instead of the most memorable and recognizable symbols that come to mind.

White people with a Buddha statue on their coffee table don’t look smart and well traveled. They look like they don’t see other cultures and religions as “valid” if they’re willing to crib designs for home decor. Using a middle eastern hamsa as a door charm or wearing bindi which are more suitable to Banglapur, India, leaves a white American looking ignorant and callous. Consult with a designer about how to incorporate cultural motifs without falling back on an easy shortcut.

Buy from (and credit!) the artist belonging to that culture

In America, the single most common sin is to use First Nations and Native American art as fanciful decorations. The single best way to avoid cultural appropriation if you want to honor our nation’s dubious history with the locals who were here before us is to buy from native or ethnic artists. Instead of picking up a dreamcatcher from a woman on Etsy, research where to get your design elements direct from the source. It might cost marginally more to find an artist native to that culture, but you’ll get realism and quality you just can’t get from a mass-marketed knock-off.

Appropriation means to take something and make it your own. So avoid it by sharing credit for the culture it came from and put money into their art. Once you have your amazing home, make sure you keep a few cards on hand from the artist. If your friends want to look into similar designs, you can help them avoid cultural appropriation, too.

Posted in Ideas and Tips.

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