Design’s Multicultural Influences

For today’s generation of designers, cross-culturalism is about physically experiencing different worlds while retaining your own history. For proof, just consider the points raised during “Crossing Cultures,” the opening seminar at Metropolis’s “Design Entrepreneurs: Connecting Cultures” conference, held May 16 as part of ICFF 2005.

When an audience member asked Patricia Urquiola, one of the seminar’s participants, whether she designs with her heart or her mind, the Spanish-born, Milan-based designer thought for a moment and replied, “With my hands!” The next speaker, former Next Generation Design Prize winner and molo design principal Stephanie Forsythe, echoed the sentiment, claiming “[Design] is about thinking with your hands—it’s probably where the heart and mind come together.”

That thought could be expanded to include that the hands are where designers’ varied experiences come together. After all, Urquiola and Forsythe, as well as fellow speaker Jason Shatilla, have all found that the products they create are profoundly influenced by their interactions with other cultures.

Growing up in Spain, Urquiola says that she “thought of architecture as a big ‘A’ and design as a small ‘d’…[and] in Milan, I saw the value of the small ‘d’.” The only member of her family still in Europe, Urquiola went to Italy for love and stayed on. Now, even as she becomes a design world sensation and her sphere grows ever more international, she brings into her work elements from everyday Spanish life, such as the hammock she reclines in on the June 2005 cover of Metropolis.

Shatilla, who is just beginning his career, also found his influence in Italy. The Montreal-based principal of surface 3 interned in Milan with Aldo Cibic, a co-founder of the Memphis design group. The results of that time are evident in the bold colors and playful modularity of one of surface 3’s first products, a set of interlocking coffee tables.

From the beginning, product designer/architect Forsythe and her partner, Todd MacAllen, knew that they needed to seek inspiration—and opportunities—beyond their home base of Vancouver. So the pair began entering international design competitions.

The duo first won a contest to design 200 units of housing and community facilities in a northern Japanese town, which led to frequent trips to the Far East. Inspired by the paper lanterns and sliding walls they saw in Japan, they created a lamp, which won a competition sponsored by Italian lighting company Flos. That win took them to Italy, where they decided to find a manufacturer for their first product, the Float glass tea lantern.

When the pair couldn’t find a glassmaker, they traveled to the Czech Republic, where in the small town of Zelezny Brod they located a company that could make the lanterns. If you include the U.S. firm that created the tea lantern prototype, then the product is the result of four countries: a cross-cultural result that would have been improbable—and nearly impossible—in any other era, but now seems increasingly familiar.