Design Beyond the West

Design from Oceania at the National Museum of World Cultures

What happens if you do not use the lens of 'art' or ‘material culture’ to look at things that are or were made and used in this vast part of the world called Oceania? Finding objects that can qualify as ‘design’ – a term usually associated with modern and contemporary society (Otto & Smith 2013) – in the Oceania collections of the National Museum of World Cultures, is an exercise in pushing boundaries; not only geographically by extending the gaze beyond the West, but also conceptually.

I began to search for publications defining Pacific/Oceanic design. In recent years alternative design histories with promising titles have surged: Global Design History (Adamson, Riello & Teasley 2011), History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400-2000 (Kirkham & Weber 2013) and World History of Design (Margolin 2015). Strikingly, none of these publications addresses Pacific design, even though Margolin (2015) attempts to include New Zealand and Australia stating that the indigenous people there have invented and designed things (Margolin 2015: 407-408, 419). I likewise looked at sources where a panoply of Pacific art forms are considered, ranging from arts of the body, weaving and carving, to music, literature, film and photography (Brunt, Thomas, Mallon, Skinner & Küchler 2012; Mallon & Pereira 2002). Again the term design is never employed and even less discussed.

European 20th century-modernist artists were the first to acknowledge Pacific objects as exponents of design. In their quest for new interpretations of the body and of creative processes, these artists looked beyond their comfort zone. A figure (Figure 1) belonging to a small group of thirty-seven sculptures from Nukuoro, arrived in Western museum collections from the 1870s onwards and exemplifies modernist’s explorations. The highly stylized representation of the human in the figures embodied for modernists the purest form of art and of design. This kind of figure inspired Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) to make his famous sculpture Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934, cast c. 1954-55) and Henry Moore (1898-1986) to consider the Nukuoro image at the British Museum as one of the highlights in the history of sculpture. The modernist perception is in stark contrast with the ideas of the first European collectors who found Nukuoro sculptures coarse and clumsy (Veys 2015).

Similarly, Lake Sentani barkcloth (Figure 2), hitherto not a main collector’s item, appeared in European auction sales in the 1920s and 1930s. The cloths inspired modernist artists as Henri Matisse, Max Ernst and Joan Miró, for whom the layout of the animal motifs, testified to a unique creative design mentality of Lake Sentani people (Veys 2014a). Evidently the abovementioned objects talk more about the Western sense of aesthetic principles by which design is considered than about the question of how design works beyond the West. It demonstrates that one gets alternative answers on different questions.

According to some scholars (Cross 2006, Friedman 2002, Fry 2009) design is a universally human process of thought and planning that sets us apart from nature. From this perspective all objects can be considered design, as all things are the result of giving form, structure and function to an idea (Nelson and Stolterman 2003:1). I believe that the Pacific canoe qualifies in an exceptional way to the materialisation of an idea. The Pacific Ocean was and still is conceived as a highway connecting people but also allowing them to think big, beyond the small islands. The recently deceased Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa explicitly vocalised this idea in his seminal essay ‘Our sea of islands’ (Hau’ofa 1993). The ocean as an ally is present in the work of many Pacific poets, artists and craftsmen. A terse verbalisation of this complex philosophical concept pervading all areas of Pacific Islanders’ life is given by the academic and poet Teresia Teaiwa: ‘We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood’ (Hau‘ofa 2008: 41). 

The Pacific was the world’s first ocean to be explored. Canoes are the material pinnacle and result of considering the sea as a highway. Many Micronesian canoes are designed with one outrigger, a triangular sail and a asymmetric hull (Figure 3). Both indigenous and non-indigenous researchers are examining the effects of the latter when navigating or wayfinding in the Pacific Ocean. Canoes were and are clearly designed with the greatest efficacy in mind to connect with other peoples across vast distances. The sea as a benevolent entity underlies their design principles.

In ethnographic and museological descriptions, the museum’s highly unusual bird-shaped boomerang is identified as coming from southeast Australia (Figure 4). The fine surface carving dates it between 1850 and 1860, at a time of increased European contact. It was acquired around 1860 by the German merchant Friedrich August Lühdorf from an Ainu man on the island of Sakhalin, in exchange for a sack of rice. The boomerang had probably left southern Australia from the harbour of Encounter Bay, South of Adelaide, or Portland in Western Victoria, major whaling ports active between 1840 and the early 1860s. It was common for whalers to sail from southern Australia to the northern Pacific during the whaling season.

However, focussing on design one could ask ‘Why is this boomerang shaped with a slit in the middle?’ Boomerangs, the iconic objects of Aboriginal culture are highly functional throwing sticks that were used to make fire, to dig, to hunt, as knives, hammers, clubs, percussion instruments, and weapons. There are returning and non-returning types. The shape points here to a returning boomerang, which obeys several laws of physics including Bernoulli’s principle of differences in air pressure, gyroscopic stability and precession, and Newton’s laws of motion. In addition, this boomerang fits in with ideas of the Dreamtime, a concept linking past, present and future, explaining how mythical creatures created the landscape, and providing guidelines and laws indicating how people should act today in order to preserve continuity in the future. No other boomerangs are known with a carved image of this kind. However, ethnographic and Dreamtime sources do report that Aboriginal hunters from the southeast endowed some of their boomerangs with a whistling noise to imitate the sound of a hawk. When the boomerang was tossed above a group of ducks, the ducks would fly very low along the waterway and become entangled in a net that other hunters had stretched there (Veys 2014b). Conceptually, this boomerang materialises the Dreamtime stories where objects that have vanished from sight mysteriously reappear.

Asking design questions around Pacific objects has not yet been done in a sustained way and will yield interesting results. There is certainly a need for researching Oceanic design further.


Adamson, Glenn, Giorgio Riello, and Sarah Teasley, eds. 2011. Global Design History. London and New York: Routledge.

Brunt, Peter, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon, Damian Skinner, and Susanne Küchler. 2012. Art in Oceania. A new history. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Friedman, Ken. 2002. "Conclusion: Towards an Integrative Design Discipline." In Creating Breakthrough Ideas: The Collaboration of Anthropologists and Designers in the Product Development Industry, edited by Susan Squires and Bryan Byrne, 199-214. Westport, CT and London: Bergin and Garvey.

Fry, Tony. 2009. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Oxford: Berg.

Hau'ofa, Epeli. 1993. "Our Sea of Islands." In A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, edited by Eric Waddell, Vijay Naidu and Epeli Hau'ofa, 2-16. Suva, Fiji: The University of the South Pacific.

Hau'ofa, Epeli. 2008. "The Ocean in Us." In We are the Ocean. Selected Works, edited by Epeli Hau'ofa, 41-59. Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i

Mallon, Sean, and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira, eds. 2002. Pacific Art Niu Sila. The Pacific Dimension of Contemporary New Zealand Arts. Wellington: Te Papa Press, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Design Beyond the West

Design Beyond the West, a project of the Research Center for Material Culture, attempts a rethinking of the history of design, with the ethnographic museum as its focus. One of its aims is to reframe the museum’s large and diverse collections through the lens of design and thereby move the field of ethnographic museum inquiry forward to think about design practices as part of cultural production. In response to this project, NMVW curator of Oceania, Dr. Wonu Veys, selected objects from the National Museum of World Cultures collections as a starting point for thinking differently about categories of design, art and ethnography.