Status and nostalgia associated with DIY culture and gardening is encouraging people in currently wealthy countries to learn and use skills that are counteractive to consumerism culture and therefore more useful in the face of changing world. Design can maintain the status of these deeds when employed in situations of need thus assuring dignity in the times characterised by energy descent.
Terminology used in the hypothesis is explained in the introduction part of this paper. Further on the trends in human behaviour and material/object culture through the visual examples that are both current and historic are explored to be able to make conclusions and predictions about ways of assuring dignity in the times of energy descent. Analysis of visual examples that follows after the introduction is divided in three parts. In the first I look at aspirations for status manifested through big brands. In the second I explore how the concept of nostalgia is employed through the design of the products currently in the market and in the third I analyse the actual self-made objects and environments.
Introduction to terminology:
The term ‘nostalgia’ is used in this paper to describe the longing for the past, its idealisation. The past is understood here as the period shortly before and at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as well as a period of National Romanticism in the late 19th and early 20thcentury.
In the visual analysis I use the term ‘status’ instead of more precise ‘high status ’, referring to a positioning in social stratification. The popular assumption that status can be exhibited only through the unnecessary is employed and explored: “Any of these activities and objects may be experienced by the consumer as useful or necessary, but none of them are. It is precisely their uselessness that is necessary to demonstrate status” (Slater 1997:155).
This assumption is the reason for questioning what form could the means of exhibiting the status and providing the dignity take in the ‘changed world’, where consumption of manufactured goods is restricted and making and growing commodities is a base for existence, not only a deliberate choice.
By ‘the changing world’ I refer to a range of geological, social, economic and ecological aspects that are brought out in Limits to Growth(Meadows, Randers 2004) and Vital Signs: The Trends That Are Shaping our Future (Starke 2005) as well as Future Scenarios by David Holmgren (2009). Further on in hypothesis I equate ‘the changing world’ to a term ‘Energy descent’ which was first coined by ecologists Odum and Odum in 2001 and is used to describe the decline in production and consumption of energy and resources our civilisation is very possibly facing very soon (Gapminder world 2006). Definition by Rob Hopkins in transitionculture.org, describes the Energy descent as:
The continual decline in net energy supporting humanity, a decline which mirrors the ascent in net energy that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution. It also refers to a future scenario in which humanity has successfully adapted to the declining net energy availability and has become more localised and self-reliant. It is a term favoured by people looking towards energy peak as an opportunity for positive change rather than an inevitable disaster. (Hopkins 2008)
Clothing and personal accessories are very often used as social status markers. Brands like Gucci are positioned as ‘High end’, meaning that their consumers can be found in the highest strata in social ladder. The collage principle used in their advertising (Fig. 1) suggests that although the public wearing Gucci is fragmented, they all have common characteristics. In this case, most obvious similarities are determined by the concept of collection. Connotations of party and glamour can be seen through the shiny surfaces and dark but sparkling tonality and high-heel shoe type not meant for pedestrians. Conversely the types of clothing like jeans, cardigans, large bags, etc. signify everyday use. Putting that together, the message is that those who buy this brand have a life which is filled with entertainment and sexiness (connoted by the range of erotic stimuli like poses, facial expressions, etc.).
Fig. 1 is just one of the images in the visual media that connote wealth, youth and party lifestyle that is respected as affluent. By owning items from a brand and mimicking its imagery one can demonstrate acceptance of values carried by that brand and it is possible to feel like a part of the affluent while being on the lower level in the social hierarchy.
An interesting point is that brand items do not have to be original to give the impression of belonging and demonstrate the aspirations. Good example is from Confessions of an Eco Sinner, where the author describes his impressions from visiting the clothing factory in China:
I noticed a cheap bag hanging on a hook at the back of the room. ‘GUCCI’ it said in large letters on the front. It was fake, of course. But unlike their mothers and sisters back in the village, these women had heard of Gucci. They aspired. Even their tiny black-and-white TV showed them a world they badly wanted. What else was there to dream of when making clothes for Western consumers than about joining them? (Pearce 2008:142)
Unlike Fig. 1 and other advertising images and retail shops from high street brands, where items are exhibited as unique and specialised, the market stall with brand imitation bags in Fig. 2 connotes commonness and signifies high volumes of customers. It is also an observable trend that the lower is the actual social status of the customer, the more recognisable and explicit the branding of the item has to be.
The aspirations of a part of the middle class in currently wealthy countries are likely to reject high street brands or are more inclined to identify with the past due to cultural patriotism and beliefs about damaging effects of industrialisation (Hermanis in Rigas Laiks 2009). This opens the way for the blossoming of smaller brands that are using historical material and visual languages for their products. Many examples can be found in styling of gardening tools. Like in the example below (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4), where the typology of shape and material of the basket from the drawing for The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency (1976) (Fig. 3) is closely reproduced in a new product (Fig. 4).
Furthermore, the candle encasement from Fig. 5 is produced to connote authenticity with its utilitarian shape and materials commonly used in commodities in the late 19th and early 20th century like glass, hemp, aluminium, and card. Careful attention is paid for marking the product: the embossing on the surface of glass and the pale colours of the label, the matte finish tactile print connoting gentleness – a characteristic much valued in the stereotypical notion of Englishness (Colls, Dodd 1986:80). Moreover, the font of the label is chosen to convey the romantic connotations of a flower garden. While the basket is hand-made, referring to crafts and basketry, the lantern is not. Both of them share the built-in imperfection as well as materials intended for visible ageing, which are other typical characteristics of nostalgia products. Products like these serve as gifts and decoration, less for their functional purpose that was intended for products made in the times they mimic.
Below are a few examples from self-made objects, each described separately with illations in the conclusion part of this section.
One of the examples from London allotments (Fig. 6) shows the aesthetics of scraps. The structures are defined by the available materials and skills. Materials like metal for carcass and wood for pegs and bordering logs can be salvaged from forested areas and old structures. Plastic balls on the top of the pegs signify the wish to differentiate the plot from the others through visual marking.
Revived old furniture as in Fig. 7 does not require special attachment to it before the renovation as told by the author of the wardrobe. Skills, materials and aspiration to identify with the visually distant from adherent culture were needed to accomplish this task. (Appendix 1).
Inuit dolls (Fig. 8) represent the Inuit culture by the use of fur for building complete character thus signifying the sheer importance of that material in their culture.
The ornamentation seen here and in the Fig. 7 signifies the need for ornamentation as a means of expressing identity.
Multiband regenerative radio receiver in the Fig. 9 received the brand name “Radiospy 2004” from its author. This name is written on the surface of the casing (which is made out of salvaged and collected parts from other equipment) with a black marker. Building the radio from the scratch shows advanced and specific skills enabled by education, while the usage of marker for labelling signifies the importance and suitability of materials at hand. The same can be seen in the Fig. 10, where an ink stamp for marking towels in a division of the Russian army has been made out of old tire and salvaged wooden parts.
Conclusion of visual analysis
At the time when shops are offering sentimental products that emulate the past, and high street brands have more power over the identities of lower classes through the accessibly inexpensive counterfeits, people are also expressing and defining themselves through the self-made.
There are several categories of self-made objects. Some are intended for utilitarian function and some are made with the purpose of self-expression, but all of them have two things in common:
- They are the result of problem solving
- They convey the message about the creator and culture they are created in through the use of materials and decoration (or its absence).
Dignity and pride about the self-made objects becomes visible if the object complies with (or conveys) the range of personal or collective values that a person identifies with and aspires to.
Literature Review and Critique
The first term investigated in this review is ‘dignity’. It is explored through sources that refer to the term itself and through the contemporary analysis of those sources. The aim of this discourse is to determine if the term can be brought forward, and if that could be afforded then to define its framework.
Furthermore, I explore how DIY and gardening refers to status and identity issues by analyzing them both in the context of consumerism culture and counter-culture to comprehend the existing key attitudes and behaviours related to material world. By the term ‘counter-culture’ every subculture that opposes itself against the dominant culture is understood.
Finally, the energy descent and Permaculture as being a part of it are both explored in a relationship with other issues that are listed above.
Literature Review and Critique
The term ‘dignity’ is often used in the national and international institutions’ constitutions, declarations and proclamations (e.g. Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations). In these documents ‘dignity’ is usually referred to as an intrinsic quality. Moreover, it is used “as an expression of a basic value accepted in a broad sense by all peoples” (Schachter 1983). The term can be seen side by side with notions of ‘human rights’, ‘human worth’ and ‘human equality’ (second paragraph of the Preamble; Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The use of ‘dignity’ in this context implies that it is an innate quality of each person that could be possibly deteriorated by negative actions against the person. Social Darwinism, on the other hand, rejects the notion that dignity is intrinsic and sees nothing other than the ‘survival of fittest’ that would render any person valuable (Mathúna 2006). Nevertheless, the meaning of dignity is never explained, but “has been left to intuitive understanding, conditioned in large measure by cultural factors” (Schachter 1983), which sets ground for doubt about the commonly understandable use of the term. Caulfield and Chapman (2005) in the article on Human Dignity as a Criterion for Science argue that “its use may imply a degree of social consensus that simply does not exist”. Therefore, it is obvious that the term ‘dignity’ can be understood only by giving culturally descriptional specifications; a guide. Or rather as a collection of very individual values that are used for maintaining self-esteem as it is shown in the research paper by Christine Cavanagh on Dignity and Palliative care (2004), where the author reflects on the experienced stories from the nursing practice at a hospice:
I came quickly to the realisation that dying with dignity is different for everyone. The concept of dignity is elusive and is very much in the mind of the beholder […] my own personal philosophy of dignity is fairly simplistic and includes spirituality, privacy, pride, cleanliness and personnel appearance. […] dignity is a concept that best fits with a person’s own value system and is usually, but not always, related to self-respect and integrity.
Even if ‘dignity’ is based on individual values and beliefs and can therefore take versatile forms, it is clearly significant for each person to be able to act according to their own conception of dignity. Practices used by nurses to assure that patients are dying with dignity could also be applied to living with dignity and to product design. Therefore it is useful to list these practices:
- Allowing the control and choice over the environment and settings
- Hearing and telling stories from life, thus adding significance to one’s life story
- ‘Joining the journey’ – keeping ongoing, regular attention, getting involved
- Including support of society and, if applicable, family
- Encouraging independence
- Keeping up appearances
The last point relates not only to the looks and posture of the individual, but also to the significance of appearances of objects in one’s environment. In the Dignity and Palliative care this is exposed through the story of an old man Maurice who refused to see his granddaughter when his condition became worse, just so that she remembers him in a way he used to be before. Fortunately the nurse recognized that the object he had to use when feeling sick did not comply with his self-image: “The home care nurses told me that Maurice lived in a lovely old villa and was surrounded by books and old antique furniture. A blue plastic ice-cream container used as a vomit receptacle certainly did not fit into his way of thinking about the environment” (2004:24). After the nurse replaced the utilitarian plastic container, the man continued to see his granddaughter: “Jane came the next day and visited him at the appointed hour […] the ice cream container was removed and replaced with a lovely glass bowl with a fancy cover” (2004:25).
As visible in the given example, identity (what one believes oneself to be) and status signifiers are closely related to each other as well as to the feeling dignified. Therefore, I will look briefly at the formation and expressions of identity and status in both consumerism culture and counterculture touching the issues of DIY and gardening.
DIY, Gardening, Identity and Status in Consumerism culture
In this chapter I will look at the formation of identity through the consumption of everyday objects, focusing on young adults until middle age in the middle class in the currently wealthy countries.
For the start, I want to refer to the TheMeaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Csikszentmihaly, Rochberg-Halton 1981), where the adults’ (my target group) choice of consumables is defined as focused on ‘status objects’ and ‘contemplation objects’, namely furniture (status objects), books and photos (contemplation objects). In the Meaning of Things these objects are described as playing a significant part in defining and exhibiting one’s identity. The Meaning of Things focuses on identity expressions in the home-related environment. I choose it as a field of further discussion in this paper because DIY and gardening that may otherwise be called ‘crafts’ are mostly associated with the home: “craft consumption is […] identified as typically encountered in such fields as interior decorating, gardening, cooking and the selection of clothing ‘outfits’.” (Campbell 2005:23).
Consumerism culture that has taken wide extent and global domination since the beginning of industrialization (Campbell 2005, Douglas, Isherwood 1979, Lebergott 1993) has helped with the accumulation of wealth in society and, as argued by Don Slater in Consumer Culture and Modernity, “The aim of wealth is not increased consumption but rather the accumulation of marks of honour […] a way of demonstrating one’s status and inciting envy and emulation on the basis of one’s visible exemption from productive labour” (Slater 1997:155). Then, it is consequent that in the wealthy societies, as a result of distributed wealth, the extent of consumers that exhibit their status through unproductive activities and objects becomes higher and becomes mainstream. Thus the largest part of society is rendered to aspire for consumption, not creation, since creation is productive, but status presumably lies in the unproductive. Furthermore, since this approach is assimilated in masses, the acts of exhibiting status through the unproductive become to be seen as conformist and non-oppositional, not anymore elitist, rare and active. Therefore, the status of unproductiveness starts to degrade.
DIY, Gardening, Identity and Status in Counterculture
The last argument in the previous chapter leads to understanding why many oppositional-minded subcultures have embraced DIY and gardening activities (as being productive ones) as a significant part of their cultural identities. For example, the punk movement in the ‘80s expressed itself in many ways including self-made music; records and self made or adjusted clothes and furniture (Sladen, Yedgar 2007). Similar intentions can be seen in the Hippie culture (‘60s), where also gardening takes place. Both of these wide-known subcultures chose symbols that were taboo or derelict by the dominant culture and transformed their meanings. Both of them have also been assimilated by mainstream consumerism culture by now – by use of the same symbols, fashion and expressions, thus degrading their status of non-conformist and ‘different’. The same can be seen in the Eco-movement that was born in the ‘70s and now “are struggling to redefine their role in a world in which environmental discourses are now accepted as a legitimate part of a new world order.” (Blühdorn, 2000:24), although it could be said that here the case is slightly different since opposition itself has never been environmentalists’ primary reason for opposing the dominant societies beliefs and actions.
Status and nostalgia associated with DIY and gardening
Although as previously defined that status in mainstream society is expressed through the unnecessary and the unproductive, there is a recent rise in “people with both wealth and cultural capital” (Campbell 2005:23) that are exchanging consuming leisure activities for creative ones such as crafts and gardening. On one hand, it still stands as unnecessary since their wealth would allow them to purchase the things they need and cultural consciousness would arm them with skills to choose their purchases to comply with their identities. On the other hand, it can be seen as a rebellious move against passive and manipulated consumption, therefore as a rise of a subculture. However, Campbell (2005) defines this phenomenon “craft consumer” and states that these “individuals consume principally out of a desire to engage in creative acts of self-expression.”, and “there is no assumption that they are trying to create, or even necessarily to maintain, a sense of identity. Rather, it is claimed that these consumers already have a clear and stable sense of identity; indeed, that it is this that gives rise to their distinctive mode of consuming.” Consequently, it may be said that self-expression and creativity have become status symbols for a part of society which does not consider itself as part of a specific subculture. The question here is then, whether the rest of the consumers consider the ‘craft consumer’ actions as belonging to a distinctive subculture or to the mainstream culture.
Another way status has started to be associated with gardening and DIY is through the emulation of higher ranks. Similar to the trend to carry around small decorative dogs that was spread by celebrity socialites such as Paris Hilton, the trend of creating food gardens was popularised by both Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Obama through public acts of creating food gardens near their quarters.
Nostalgia for an idyllic past that draws the public to DIY and gardening resonates with the Arts and Crafts movement in 1870s and as is put by Carl Honore, is related to the desire for slowing down in the high-speed society (Honore 2004:39-40).
Energy descent and Permaculture
According to many sources, consumption of manufactured goods and therefore construction of identity through consumption cannot be continued for long due to the peaking of global oil supply and climate change as well as other contributing factors (Hopkins 2008, McKibben 2007, Pearce 2008, Starke 2005, Meadows, Meadows, Randers 2005, Holmgren 2009). As described in Future Scenarios by Holmgren and as it could be seen in recent as well as previous economical crisis, people are generally not prepared for sudden downturns and deprivation of income and consumption. It is illustrated best by the lately popular phrase “Recession – when your neighbour loses his job. Depression – when you lose yours.”
Future Scenarios (2009) recognises the problem and offers the concept of ‘Permaculture’ to “deal with energy descent in the most graceful way possible”, which is “tuned to a world of declining resources that will require adaptive strategies quite different from those being pursued currently.” (Holmgren 2009:31) It is a concept not yet familiar to the wide public, therefore it can currently be considered as a subculture although on the other hand it is already widespread between academics, educators, activists, planners and policy makers in Australia (Holmgren 2009).
Permaculture is a design tool1 and includes a Do It Yourself approach as well as gardening practices and would be attractive to the ‘craft consumer’ and useful as a ‘fireproofing’ tool for ensuring a certain degree of dignity in times of economic downturns and energy descent. But the question here is: whether and in what way it could be attractive to an audience that defines their identity through the “comfortable leisure and consumption, the conspicuous waste of time and goods” (Slater 1997:155)? To answer this, it is important to understand the profile of everyday life of the target audience to clarify which cognitive behaviours could be addressed for creating a change in lifestyles. Furthermore, according to D. Slater in Consumer Culture and Modernity, it is important to decipher who are the audience’s ‘betters’, the ones it emulates and borrows the status symbols from. At this point it is also important to remember postmodernity and versatility of tastes where one can be hooked on Cosmic Odyssey 2001- like image of a glossy perfection and another could be chanting mantras and longing for hundred years old set of draws from best English craftsmen while residing in hundred-storey tower-building. Or even both, since the first visual connotation is mostly associated with personal gadgets and the latter with home environments. However, what is common in my target public is that they are educated, embracing the notions of youth, success driven and working full time or even more: “By 2002, one in five thirty-something Britons was working at least sixty hours a week. And that is before one adds in the long hours we spend commuting” (Honore 2004:164).
Thus the question the product design has to solve here is: how to integrate the slow paced concept of Permaculture in the intense and consumption-driven lives of the target audience?
1 Interestingly, every source I found failed to define Permaculture concept shortly and sharply. It seems to be constantly changing and developing throughout times as mentioned in Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture: “the early definitions dealt with permanence, later definitions concentrate on sustainable human settlements. One definition of permaculture is: Permaculture is about designing sustainable human settlements. It is a philosophy and an approach to land use which weaves together microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, water management, and human needs into intricately connected, productive communities” (Morrow 1993:9). Almost thirty years after applying the concept and popularizing it, this is what one of its authors, David Holmgren has to say: “sometimes Permaculture is understood as simply returning to traditional patterns from the past and is consequently criticised as impractical. While it is true that older, more traditional patterns of resource use and living provide some of the elements and inspiration for permaculture, it is certainly more than this. One way to understand permaculture is as a postmodern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves continuous change and evolution. This builds on the human experience of continuos change rather than static tradition as well as the more recent emergence of design as a new literacy that allows us to effectively and efficiently respond to and redesign our environment and ourselves” (Holmgren 2009:33).
To start the conclusion, I would like to recap the design intention mentioned in the hypothesis and the question deduced at the end of the literature review. The first is: “Design can maintain the status of DIY and gardening, when they are employed in situations of need thus assuring dignity in the times characterised by energy descent”, and the second: “how to integrate the slow paced concept of Permaculture in the intense and consumption-driven lives of the target audience?”. It can be seen here, that analysis of visual examples and literature has brought some changes to the hypothetical setup. Namely, ‘DIY’ and ‘gardening’ has been replaced with ‘Permaculture’ due to its ability to assure dignity1 as well as ability to fit in the times of energy descent. Also, the target audience has been clarified. However, nor status nor nostalgia are currently associated with Permaculture in the mainstream public and my target audience. Moreover, the concept of permaculture is not even widely known and recognised except for Australia. Nevertheless, it includes both DIY and gardening practices therefore the status and nostalgia associated with them could be used to introduce the concept of the Permaculture if only my named target public would be drawn to these activities
1 Permaculture answers to almost all the practices listed in the section about dignity.
- Allowing the control and choice over the environment and settings – it works best in the small, manageable scale and basic Permaculture principles can be used to create different approaches according to needs.
- Hearing and telling stories from life, thus adding significance to one’s life story, C) ‘Joining the journey’: keeping ongoing, regular attention, getting involved, D) Including support of society and, if applicable, family – communication, sharing of knowledge and involvement as well as valuing diversity are all basic principles of Permaculture.
- Encouraging independence – practicing Permaculture gives independence from centralised power and supply structures when they are failing.
- Keeping up appearances – due to the fact that practicing Permaculture includes gardening and DIY, it might not seem a dignified approach to those who don’t associate themselves with these practices.
Unfortunately, both DIY and gardening are slow, creative and reflective, but the target public lead fast and hurried lives, filled with countless acts of consumption that is often not any more their conscious choice, but rather a consequence of the way the human-made systems of our times are designed. They do not currently put nor see their status in the DIY and gardening for food, therefore the initial hypothesis is no more valid and I must offer a new formulation of the problem and task that would be based on the analysis drawn out in this paper:
“People who define themselves and their status through conspicuous consumption are not emotionally and cognitively prepared for life in energy descent. Product design together with Permaculture can maintain their dignity in times of economical downturns.”
Since the aim for this paper is to draw out the guidance for designing a product, it is also important to position the product in time. Future Scenarios (2009) looks at the approximately next 100 years of the possible future, but the need for the product is much more current, therefore it is once more confirmed that the product should intertwine with the life as it is now – preferably in an unobtrusive, unsuspicious way. The product should be associated with a wealthy, comfortable life, but have a positive influence for times when it can be the opposite. And this is why it is only reasonable to assume that a final product should correspond to the existing typologies of products often used by the target public and offer visceral and behavioural pleasure as well as reflective design qualities (Norman, 2004). Recognisable typology would render the object easier to fit in already established product usage patterns, while visceral qualities such as tactile and other sensory properties would firstly entice to own the product and secondly, to regularly use it, forming new patterns of behaviour. Visual appearance hence would be consequent to these objectives and also take into account existing environments to fit in, such as home interiors (Fig.12)
where, as my design research (not in the visual analysis) has shown, two of the most commonly seen tendencies are: neutral, mostly light colours chosen for walls, floors and ceilings and second – mostly straight-angled furniture and technical equipment. This aspect, despite being so obvious and self-evident together with a need for a product to be of a recognisable type is important due to the status quo bias (Kahneman, 1991), common for everyone and playing a huge role in the decision making.
Now it is possible to list the requirements for a product that could maintain the dignity of a currently conspicuous consumer at times when this way of consumption is not possible.
The final product should:
Blend well in existing environments;
Allow for control and transformation by the user;
Offer a recognisable function;
Entice for a regular use;
Entice for exhibiting it;
Teach Permaculture in an unobtrusive, enjoyable and gradual way;
Be made according to Permaculture principles.
List of images
Gucci collection: photo. 2009 [online image] Available from < http://www.gucci.com/uk/campaign/fall-winter > [Accessed 19 October 2009]
Fake Gucci: photo. 2007 [online image] Available from < http://www.flickr.com/photos/hans-mayo/2263993805/> [Accessed 19 October 2009]
Drawing by Eric Thomas, photo, October 2009, author’s own from exhibition in Garden Museum.
Basket, photo, October 2009, author’s own from the shop in Garden Museum.
Lantern Garden trading, photo, October 2009, author’s own from the shop in Garden Museum.
Allotment plot, photo, September 2009, author’s own from the Kidbrook Park Road Allotment site.
Wardrobe, photo, September 2009, from survey answers.
Inuit dolls, photo, September 2009, author’s own from V&A Museum of Childhood.
Wardrobe, photo, September 2009, from survey answers.
Wardrobe, photo, September 2009, from survey answers.
T-shirt, photo, 2009 [online image] Available from<http://www.zazzle.com/recession_job_loss_tshirt-235570560965871664>[Accessed 7 January 2010]
Interior, photo, 2009 [online image] Available from<www.flickr.com>[Accessed 8 January 2010]
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