CULTURAL AGENCY: Exploring Perception, Product and Approach

Presenters: Marsha R. Cuddeback and T.L. Ritchie

Expanding awareness of the production of culture encourages students to reflect on personal assumptions and beliefs, cultivate a regard for diversity, understand the limitations of ethnocentrism, and develop an approach to design that is culturally responsive and sensitive to globalization’s potential for “new forms of cultural expression (Steger, 2014, p. 75).” Integrating culturally driven research and analysis investigations in the design studio provides opportunities for students to examine and understand the interior environment as both a product and expression of culture, which in turn shapes the way we view the world.

This paper illustrates a process for learning that employs a qualitative approach to research, grounded in social constructionism, to help prepare interior design students for practice in a culturally diverse and evolving global environment through taking “a critical stance toward our taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world (Burr 2003, p. 2).”

The learning process choreographed three sequential, interrelated investigations, where learning was active and contextualized; an off-campus archaeological field study, an investigation of human rituals in the interior environment, and a comparative analysis of traditional building typologies in multicultural settings. Each investigation was designed to strengthen reflective, observational, descriptive, and analytical skills development, while examining their assumptions and beliefs about culture and design. 

The investigations were prefaced with reading Horace Minor’s satirical essay on modern American culture, Body Ritual among the Nacirema, to engage students in a thought experiment (Sorensen, 1998), encourage critical thinking about American culture from the point of view of distant observer, and begin to reflect on the condition and impact of ethnocentrism. This preface formed an atypical segue for students to develop an approach for conducting research and analyzing cultural comparisons, and encourage students to question how and why culture is manifest in interior environments. Through systematic observation and data collection the students examined a large public building to determine how the interior environment was shaped by social, historical, cultural and economic factors. Next they conducted a comparative analysis of five common interior building typologies in eleven different countries worldwide. The students worked collaboratively in teams to document the behavioral manifestations and the physical characteristics of spaces and artifacts for each building type. The sequence of investigations culminated in creating a contemporary artifact through reflecting on what they learned which would be the starting point for a design project.

A student perception survey was conducted 9 months later indicating 88% of the students agree or strongly agree that they are more likely to consider cultural differences as a factor in design, and 82% agree or strongly agree that the experience in this class helped them develop a personal design process that responds to cultural diversity. Through examining how culture evolves and is manifest in the design and adaptation of interior environments, students understood the value of multiculturalism, developed an appreciation of the interior environment as a mode of cultural production, began to “navigate an interconnected global reality (Hadjiyanni 2013, p. vii),” and developed a personal design methodology responsive to diversity.


  • Burr, Vivien. Social Constructionism. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Hadjiyanni, Tasoulla. "Rethinking Culture in Interior Design Pedagogy: The Potential Beyond CIDA Standard 2g." Journal of Interior Design 38, no. 3 (2013): V-Xii. doi:10.1111/joid.12013.
  • Miner, Horace. "Body Ritual among the Nacirema." American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (1956): 503-07. doi:10.1525/aa.1956.58.3.02a00080.
  • Rengel, Roberto J. Shaping Interior Space. New York: Fairchild, 2003.
  • Sorensen, Roy A. Thought Experiments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


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