As I think back amongst “trends” in interior design over the past few years, I think of Kuba & Mud cloth, Handira, Suzanis, Juju hats, Indian block print, Hmong fabric pillows, ikat - design elements that are considered exotic, eclectic, ethnic, global.
But these design elements are “exotic” in the generic sense of “other” or “different” and in their rise to trend, most people didn’t know or didn’t care about the origin or cultures behind what was simply considered an interior design trend.
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture (usually white people) adopts or uses elements from a non-dominant culture (and usually one that has been oppressed) with little regard for the culture they appropriating from.
Further adding to the issue, usually the non-dominant culture continues to experience racism, discrimination, and oppression at the hands of the dominant culture, even while their “things” are being appropriated. Cultural appropriation happens whether it is our intention or not.
Cultures and people are not something to be distilled into consumable, marketable, and palatable objects.
Much of cultural appropriation in interior design comes from colonialism. When a nation colonized another, it often created a fantasy in the exoticism, while subjugating the people. This is apparent when you look at the imprint that Indian goods have had on English design, while Indian people faced great racism. It’s also apparent when you look at the obsession that some people have with collecting Native American objects - they want the artifacts, the rugs, baskets, pottery, art - but they won’t support conservation or sovereignty efforts by the people.
It’s this cherry-picking of specific objects, using it for your own gain, and profiting from that where cultural appropriation becomes even more problematic.
Here are a couple examples:
If anything about your branding mentions “gypsy”. Using this word is offensive. While you may see the word meaning free-spirited, bohemian, or a traveller, using this word (despite your intention) is just as bad as using the n-word. More on the g-word here, here, here. You also want to strike this phrase from your vocabulary too.
Ralph Lauren “borrowing” or being heavily “influenced” by Native Americans for his clothing and home decor lines.
Questions to ask yourself:
Are you buying from ethical sources that support the makers or directly from the maker?
Do you know the history of the piece and are you respectful?
Not putting a prayer rug in the bathroom because even though it fits perfectly, it’s still disrespectful to the culture that made and uses it for prayer today.
If you must purchase a juju hat be sure you’re educated on it’s origin (Cameroon) and use (royal ceremonies) and do not call it a “colorful pouf”.
Was someone exploited or used for you to be able to purchase ______________? (fabric, chair, pillow, blanket, art, rug, sculpture, etc)
Am I buying a knock-off that exploits the original culture?
Pendleton has been accused of stealing their blanket designs from Native Americans and copyrighting those stolen designs, preventing the tribes from using their own designs and suing Native makers.
This is a complicated topic with many different opinions and a long tangled history. The lines of appropriation, appreciation, and assimilation can get blurry. The best thing that you can do is to be aware and when in doubt, err on the side of deference. Remember, it’s not what you intend (e.g. I didn’t mean to offend anyone), it’s the impact of your actions.