As a college student in the 1990s, I was unconsciously accustomed to being one of the only Black Caribbean designers in the room, and one of two in the architecture department.
My heritage wasn’t apparent until I discussed my design views with my professors. I relied on my intuition, which didn’t dovetail with what my professors deemed “acceptable tasteful design.” In architecture, “taste” was cloaked behind the mask of research, evidence-based design, philosophical studies, and psychiatric analysis; intuition in form-making was unheard of. Design institutions, like many other institutions in America, were not originally made to include me and my story. I wasn’t supposed to be there at all.
Representation and taste go hand in hand. Taste, as it is largely understood in Western architecture and interior design today, has roots in European society. It coincided with England’s emerging class system, which started in the 18th century, and reached its ultimate form by the turn of the 20th century in Victorianism. The idea was to distinguish the bourgeoisie, who could afford interior design, from the lower classes.
Good taste is now as it has been for the past 300 years—a way to reinforce class systems. Take Sir John Soane’s home built in 1753. With a strong Greek influence, it is a time capsule for the original ideas of luxury. This home (now museum) is a shrine of ornate gold, velvet, porcelain, and crystal, housed in pillars of marble. Though it existed long ago, it remains a potent symbol of power that some decorators still try to emulate today.
All cultures have what I refer to as an “aesthetic gravity well”: codes, signs, and signifiers of what the culture designates as acceptable and beautiful. I take zero issue with any culture’s idiosyncrasies. However, I take issue when a dominant ideology becomes the only acceptable ideology; it represents mass hypnosis or coercion. No single aesthetic should be considered the “right” aesthetic.
The key for designers is to be culturally aware enough to realize when these codes define our creativity and dare to defy them. When we are honest enough with ourselves to brave the unfamiliar, unrecognizable, and, possibly, the ugly, that’s when we may find something truly original.
Despite what I know today, I still think to myself: As a Black Trinidadian man, as a designer with ties to a commonwealth island of England, do I have taste? Of course! But it is not the homogenous, Eurocentric idea of taste. It is shaped by my experience of the world, which is deeply colorful and textured. I’m inspired by the Adhan in Istanbul; the clang of a church bell in Paris and echoed in Port of Spain; the fragrances and light of each of these places; and, of course, the people, with all their habits and rituals so different from mine. I am humbled to share the planet with so many examples of beauty. The task for me is to endeavor to reflect that beauty back into the world through my medium of design.
It does nothing for me to remain cerebral about taste. Intellectual conversations about history and the monolith that is taste are of no value to what is most important to me: to practice design with full emotional and spiritual presence and, above all, to trust my intuition.
Leyden Lewis is founder and creative director of Leyden Lewis Design Studio.