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#36 What can we learn from an experimental violin?
It’s Design Lobster #36 and I’m so glad you are here. This week: indigenous Native American design and an experimental violin. Sounds good? 🎻
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Question: Why is four-fold symmetry so important in Native American design?
Above: a four-fold Navajo sand painting in ceremonial use.
After learning about the importance of fractals in indigenous African architecture in Design Lobster #20, I went on a mini-quest to learn some more about other non-Western design traditions. My curiosity lead me to the design work of Pre-colonial North America, which is well-known for its use of four-fold symmetry. This type of symmetry is symmetrical in two directions and can be found in tribal weaving, beadwork and teepee construction. Some tribes even use base-four in their counting.
Particularly beautiful examples of four-fold symmetry can be found in the sand paintings of the Navajo people, see above and below.
Above: a Navajo sand painting depicting the coyote stealing fire.
This kind of symmetry had spiritual significance for Native American communities, relating to their orientation in the world, the cardinal directions and the passage of the sun. Each work of design is an attempt to link back into this higher order, to make man-made things consonant with the natural world from which they come – a symbolic whole.
I always like to learn about alternatives to the dominant Western ways of thinking about space and order. In the case of four-fold symmetry I was especially intrigued to read a completely different genealogy of European thought in this area. This paper by Ron Eglash speculates that Descartes came up with his namesake Cartesian grid via exposure to the the works of the occult philosopher John Dee, who was a well-known collector of indigenous North-American objects. Could it be that something we think of as so paradigmatically Western actually have its origin in the Native American design tradition?
Design takeaway: What symbolic whole does your work link to?
Watch some silent 1941 footage of a sand painting ritual.
Object: Chanot Experimental violin
Something about this violin looks wrong, right?
Rather than f-holes, those swirly cut-outs we last discussed in Design Lobster #20, it has two narrow slits. You might also notice the smooth guitar-like shape and lack of scroll. This is in fact an experimental violin by François Chanot, a Parisian luthier working in the first half of the 19th century on violins that he hoped would improve on their Baroque models. His theory was that violins needed as many intact wood fibres as possible to sound their best, hence the unusual design choices above.
François Chanot was part of a historical moment of great enthusiasm for scientific principles and empirical study. Besides the violin above, another maker called Felix Savart was making trapezoidal violins.
In the end, as much due to fashion as how they sounded, none of these experimental designs entered the mainstream. They are however a nice reminder of the importance of experimentation, and how weird and creative the solutions of a strictly empirical process can be.
Design takeaway: What experiments are you working on?
Listen to the violin being played (skip forward to 1:30, there’s a lot of silent rotating before that…).
Quote: “Design is the rendering of care.”
– Pavel Samsonov
A quote to remind us of the ethical responsibility of design work. Pavel describes it as a care-giving activity which I think is thought-provoking. A designer’s kind of care might be mediated by objects or systems but still deserves to be called as such – if only to remind us of the way our work affects so many people’s lives.
Pavel is a great follow on Twitter if you aren’t already.
Keep discovering. 🦞
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