Every day, in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east, and remaining in the southern half of the sky brings more light to things facing south. Plants are well aware of this, so they grow with greater lushness on the southern side of woods and buildings. Medieval builders of churches knew this too, orienting the apses of their constructions towards the east, and the other volumes as a result of that choice, so visitors to the church would always have a sense of their position with respect to the heavens, without having to look at a compass or an app.
The ‘cosmic’ awareness provided an experience of deep rooting in the perceived scheme of the world, identified not at the end of complicated ‘existential’ research, but experienced in every single daily action.
The same need for orientation on the cosmic map of sky and earth lies behind the Chinese concept of Feng Shui, which apart from the banal interpretation it has met with over time (becoming little more than geomantic superstition) was created to supply an existential reference in everyday life through the positioning of walls and furnishings. And if decor organized in keeping with the principles of Feng Shui can bring a sense of wellbeing, this is not based on the virtues of sleeping with your head pointing north or south, but on the embodiment of awareness of our position in the world.
This idea of decor as a ‘domestic sextant’ has been largely lost in modern times. Above all in the industrial West, the development of an abstract idea of decor as smooth, rational internal space, separated from the harsh, rough world outside, has overwritten the concept of domesticity as cosmic rooting in favor of a purely intellectual management of the design of lifespace, disconnected from the sensorial depth that shapes human experience on earth.
In truth, postmodern design appeared precisely due to the sensation that something was lacking in the aseptic definition of the rational object, which deprived of the capacity to reverberate in tune with a wider context – where the ‘symbolic’ dimension exists – drove some of the most acute sensibilities of design culture to attempt a return to ancient symbolic density inside the modern everyday world.
It is interesting to note, in this area, how the form of the Carlton bookcase designed by Ettore Sottsass seems to suggest, in the eyes of an oriental, that of an ideogram, to the point of becoming ‘legible’ like a word. This coincidence is effectively symptomatic. With respect to the western written word made of abstract graphic signs, the oriental ideogram carries with it the iconic residue of the thing to which it refers: more than an alphabetic word, the ideogram is the graphic stylization of a concrete, figural experience.
Word vs. image, on one side, and word fused with image on the other. A difference in the conception of the sign that can also be seen in the relationship between western and eastern design. While in the first modern, i.e. abstract furnishings are clearly distinguished from decorative, ornate and figural items, in the second, especially in the case of the Chinese ‘neo-Ming’ designers (to use an apt definition of the China Design Centre in London), we see a graphic sensibility that dates back to before the separation between word and image.
Hong Wei, for example, in the Jian seat, suggests the cosmic relationship between heaven and earth through the structural combination of the circle (which represented the heavens for the ancient Chinese) and the square (which represented the earth), while in the Jing seat he triggers the image of a landscape taken from traditional Chinese painting in the functional architecture of the product, not as an afterthought of decoration, but as an essential fusion through the recovery of sophisticated Ming woodworking.
A refinement in the plastic conception of the object that is also found in the decorative linearity of the projects produced by Yuè Literati, or in the seats designed by Jerry Chen for the brand Chunzai. If we allow for a small shift towards the abstract, though still within the ornate mode typical of Ming furnishings, we can include the Monk bookcase by Liu Yitong for MoreLess and the Sì Jì seat by Shen Baohong for U+ Furniture. The latter is almost like a piece of European Art Nouveau from the early 20th century (when rationalism had not yet gained ground, and in furniture design ornament was given a structural purpose – just look at the works of Van de Velde).
Poetic and slim as a calligraphic stroke, the Fishermen floor lamp produced by Shiershiman grasps and illustrates the gravitational balance between sky and earth in the slender power of its trunk, an almost impalpable but strong sign, like a blade of grass that forces its way through concrete. Finally, the Mix seats by the young designer Bingqi Lee deliberately unite East and West, in an explicit reference to the work of the Memphis group, proposing an ideal connecting point between the Chinese ‘fusional’ approach, which blends the abstract into the figurative, and the European ‘separate’ approach, which juxtaposes structure on figure.
A difference of aesthetic philosophy, rather than that of production, with great potential on the contemporary market that is seeking ideas that interpret the emotional content without which design cannot survive, in a general lightness that spreads calm and serenity.