When A Rug Isn’t Just a Rug: The Hidden Context Behind Popular Home Decor

published Aug 13, 2019
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Walk into any major retailer selling home decor, and you’re bound to see some inventory overlap. Buddha figurines. “Tribal” print blankets. Pillows with faux ikat patterns. They’re eye-catching, exciting, and often seem like the perfect unique item to complete the space you’ve been working so hard at decorating.

But products like these are more than just a pretty pattern or a cool design. They, and many others, have taken so-called inspiration from items unique to specific countries and cultures. They’ve become so ubiquitous in our everyday environments and home design sources that we’ve glossed over a harsh truth: In design, cultural appropriation is happening on a widespread scale. And pretty much all of us are culpable.

So what’s the difference between inspiration and appropriation—and how can you make sure that you’re being responsible with how you decorate your space? We spoke to some experts to find out.

Appropriation vs. Inspiration

Jalene Kanani Bell, a Native Hawaiian textile and product designer, sees a lot of pineapples in her line of work. 

“I advise against taking design inspiration at face value,” she says. “Pineapple motifs are everywhere when you visit Hawaii. You see it in media, while doing a Google image search on Hawaiian decor, or on store shelves everywhere with the words ‘Aloha’ or ‘Hawaii.’” 

Some may interpret that popularity and ubiquity as permission, so to speak, to design and decorate with pineapples when portraying Hawaiian culture. But not so fast, cautions Kanani Bell. 

“That depends on what you are trying to portray,” she explains. “Yes, pineapples have been a large part of our recent history and the early growth of our economy, which made them famous here. However, it was an industry that started on the heels of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.”

Abusing inspiration in this way is at the root of cultural appropriation. While the practice is complex, Shamika Mitchell, associate professor of English at Rockland Community College, sums it up as this: “Cultural appropriation is taking a culture as your own when you have no connection to it, and misuse or denigrate cultural symbols, even when it’s unintentional.” 

That’s why using Feng Shui as a design concept is accessible to anyone, although it’s a Chinese practice—but mindlessly purchasing Chinese “inspired” objects for your home is a different story.

“Filling your space with random Buddha statues, silk fans, and a qipao is a complete disconnection from Feng Shui,” Mitchell says. “Unless you are rooted in Chinese cultural heritage or are a practicing Buddhist, the aesthetics of the space will not match or contextually make sense.” 

Never mind the distinct meanings behind Buddha statues—varying postures feature a specific hand gesture, called a Mudra, that can represent attributes like overcoming fear or finding calm.

“Symbols matter,” Mitchell explains. “And someone who doesn’t know better might actually be creating spiritual drama in these spaces.” And after all, that defeats the very purpose of practicing Feng Shui.

Knowledge Is Power

So are there ways to incorporate design elements from other cultures without appropriating or creating that “spiritual drama,” as it were? Tina Ramchandani, an Indian-American interior designer based in New York City, says yes. 

“Being culturally inspired is a form of appreciation and acknowledgment, and allowing yourself to be influenced by something is a positive thing,” Ramchandani explains. “However, it’s crucial to maintain a certain level of respect for its history to avoid taking credit for its inception. Cultural appropriation feels more like theft, when a party or person uses something from another culture and passes it off as their own original idea.”

Being adequately informed, then, becomes key in the battle against appropriation. Know  product origins, know the artisans and makers, know where your money is going and who it’s really supporting. Educate yourself so you can educate others. How do you start doing this if you’re not already trying? There are a few ways, several of which are up to interior designers and sellers.

Ramchandani asks questions about the local artwork, architecture, customs, and styles when she travels to select new pieces for clients. That way, she can be empowered to provide the full story behind those items.

Paul Andrés Trudel-Payne, a Mexican-American design consultant and realtor in Seattle, encourages designers—professionals and hobbyists alike—to do the necessary legwork when sourcing items, like learning the history and craftwork of a piece or the background of the artist or artisan, so that customers can be rest assured that their pieces were made and acquired respectfully.

“With home trends constantly being influenced by other cultures and changing so frequently, it can seem like a daunting task to know which items are inspired versus appropriated,” he says. “Make it easy on yourself by utilizing your industry partners and doing some quick research. It is key to be socially aware and educated on the products you are sourcing for clients.”

As a shopper buying direct from the source, know this: A knowledgeable and socially responsible manufacturer will tell you what you want to know about a product, from its country of origin to how it was developed and created. Or at the very least, they should be able to connect you with whoever has that information. If not, it’s probably time to reconsider purchasing items from that source. 

Some retailers are adapting to consumer calls for more transparency—in 2017, for instance, West Elm announced plans to increase its percentage of Fair Trade Certified products by 2020. Supporting smaller brands and independent artists is also usually a safer bet in the effort to avoid appropriation altogether. One such company is Bi Yuu, a Mexican company that specializes in traditional flat weave rugs crafted by artisans in Oaxaca’s Zapotec community. 

“They use local artisans and raw materials to produce sustainable flat-weave rugs that age beautifully,” Trudel-Payne shares. “They’re all inspired by Mexican roots and the varying cultures and traditions Mexico has to offer.”

More Work Ahead

Part of the work in pushing against cultural appropriation, Kanami Bell says, lies with creators themselves. Anyone trying to incorporate another culture should ask themselves some big questions when, say, adding that Hawaiian pineapple into a design.

“Good questions to ask are: How would a member of the culture decorate their own home? What is the story behind this print? What is the unique value I want expressed? How can I convey that through design?” Kanani Bell shares. “Give credit to your sources. It brings value to them and to your overall design.”

While crucial, giving credit where credit’s due is merely step one. For design to become truly inclusive, collaboration must be part of the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation. Taking and crediting is entirely separate from collaborating and amplifying.

“Traveling and seeing other cultures’ designs and ideas inspires me to incorporate some of the colors, shapes, and materials in my own way,” says Linda Hayslett, a Black and Korean-American interior designer in Los Angeles. “It also means blending cultures and mixing styles as well, which I love, since I too am a mix of cultures. Designers can approach this process responsibly by crediting the authentic sources and collaborating with local artists to help their community by inspiring their neighborhoods and giving back.”

Take, for example, Black Artists+Designers Guild, a global collective of independent Black artists, designers, and makers throughout the African diaspora. Ceramic and textile artist Malene Barnett established the platform to help bring visibility to cultures and communities that have traditionally been overlooked, even while their artwork has been widely appropriated.

“As designers, in the fast-paced world we live in today, it’s hard to not want to get things out quickly,” Hayslett shares. “We have to take a step back, and take our time in understanding why, how, and who this impacts — instead of just focusing on our end goal of creating a beautiful space.”

When selecting items for your home, the number one way to avoid cultural appropriation is to ensure the artist or maker behind the product comes from the culture in question. This means checking factory labels and looking for the country of origin. It also means asking the retailer or merchant for any trade or supply chain information that can tell you how artisans and craftspeople are treated and compensated for their work. Not being able to provide this crucial information could be a sign that the seller isn’t actually invested in the countries and cultures it’s taking from.

One good place to start? The Fair Trade Certified organization provides seasonal shopping guides showcasing Fair Trade Certified products that are available in stores and online. And as is so often the case, shopping local is likely to expose you to culturally diverse artists and makers you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.

That way, you can ensure that your entire space lives in harmony—with itself, with you, and with all of the cultures that may have influenced it.