Galen Cranz

Taste and Design: Communicating Utility, Meaning, and Aesthetics
Spring 2014

Galen Cranz, Ph.D. Sociology, University of Chicago, certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, has taught social & cultural processes, including research methods, in architecture at Berkeley & Princeton. Several POEs conducted by her classes have been published. She co-edited Environmental Design Research: The Body, The City, and the Buildings In between (2011), wrote The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (2004 EDRA Achievement Award) and The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America, which helped her win three park design competitions. Kellogg National Leadership Fellow1981-84. Latrobe Fellow 2005-2007 to study evidence-based design with Kaiser Permanent Hospital.  She is currently working on a new book on how to conceptualize the role of taste in design.

Taste and Design is a bold interpretation of taste as a communication process. Rather than parse good versus bad taste, this book describes a new model of communication through the material world. This model articulates how that communication takes place: we harmonize “pragmatic” and “symbolic” objects, using aesthetic principles.  Taste is the way that one has been socialized to balance its three components --utility, meaning, and art. In general, the material world is recruited into a shared system of meanings that allows us to communicate non-verbally to one another about a whole host of things. The things we choose--objects, artwork, buildings, and even landscapes--and the way we arrange them are part of "larger, ongoing processes of expression and exchange” (Musello, 1992).  Depending on how they are used, how they are placed in relation to other things, objects can have different meanings.  Accordingly, taste is at work in the way we display our things, not only in the qualities of things themselves.  Their placement is one way that objects take on--and shed--meanings depending on how they are combined with one another.  Through display people assemble and reassemble their identity as individuals and as groups. We compose objects in space in order to produce an effect, either in ourselves or in others. This framework offers a way to “account” for taste that respects everyone, while most writing on taste either debunks it or celebrates it.  Additionally, my framework acknowledges artistic activity both as a form of personal integration (Marcus, 1995), and as a form of social differentiation (Bourdieu, 1984); through the exercise of taste, social differences are both maintained and transcended, a kind of alchemy.  This book shows how taste slides back and forth between material and nonmaterial culture, a transitional category. This study synthesizes the diverse scholarship on taste from material culture studies, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, consumer studies, aesthetics, interior, architectural, urban, and landscape design. Each theorist, usually unwittingly, emphasized only one of the three elements I have identified as essential; hence, they fall into “camps.”  This study demonstrates how my integrated, “both-and” model works in real settings--housing for the elderly, middle and upper-middle class interiors, buildings, and landscapes, with cross-cultural variations. The study concludes by considering the implications of this inclusive view of taste for art and design criticism, for cross-cultural and cross-class awareness, and for understanding differences in historical eras.