Some thoughts on Originality, Appropriation and the Origin of Teepees

I’ve been thinking a bit about the notions of ORIGINALITY and APPROPRIATION.

As you know if you’ve read my manifesto, I often use music as a model for thinking about art and design. I appreciate the relevance of the term ‘practice’ to both and I’ve always been enamored of the collaborative aspect of music making. The question of originality in music is also a very interesting one. I started thinking about this when considering the notion of ‘covers’ in music – especially popular music (from folk through rock to rap). The cover is a tribute, a test of one’s own ability and sometimes a kind of one-upmanship. A way to acknowledge your forebears and to strut your own stuff at the same time.

But in the fine arts this could be considered simply copying. Its been impossible to carve a version of Michelangelo’s David as part of an art practice for over a 100 years? For most of the 20th Century the avante-garde position has been to reject and deny the work of our forbears – not incorporate it. But since the 1970’s appropriation and sampling have become part of post-modern practice. I’m sure there’s some excellent analysis of the connections between originality, covers, sampling and appropriation with respect to music – I need Don Miller Jr.’s input here!

Perhaps in the worlds of craft and design the notion of ‘cover’ has been there all along. Lately I’ve been teaching one of my favorite classes at CCa – The History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. It’s interesting the way some ideas keep reappearing and being reinterpreted in the recent history of furniture design. For example, studio furniture designers and makers post WW2 have had this thing about designing and making music stands – perhaps this reflects the parallels between music and craftsmanship.

Through looking at so many designers in the History and Theory class I’ve noticed another strange trope or design ‘meme’. So many 20thC furniture designers have embraced the vernacular be designing their own ‘cover’ of the three-legged milking stool. Here are some nice examples –

Aalto's Stool 60 - an 'original take' from the 30's

Charlotte Perriand came back again and again to this form in the 50's and 60's after abandoning chrome and bent steel.

Tage Frid's 'cover' from the 70's

Tom Dixon's 'Offcut' from 2009

Richard Hutten's one man improv - Stool Pants from the 90's

All this was floating around in my noggin’ when I listened to a great Radiolab show last week – the piece entitled ‘Patient Zero’. It was about tracing the source of things to their ORIGIN – they looked at the AIDS virus, Typhoid Mary, the High Five, and the Cowboy Hat. The last piece featured Jonnie Hughes who has written a new book entitled “On the Origin of Teepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).” Get the pun!

In it the author expands on Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’. Dawkins believed that a meme was perpetuated by it being copied, duplicated and appropriated. Hughes hypothesizes another mechanism for the survival and, more radically, EVOLUTION of ideas through environmental, social and historical factors. In the example of the cowboy hat he proves that no-one invented it – despite Stetson’s reputation for having done so. Actually, it evolved to satisfy a very particular set of human needs determined by cultural and environmental factors – powered by the selection pressure of the cowboy’s choice. The cowboy hat wasn’t invented it evolved on the prairie – like buffalo!

So now I’m wondering if ‘originality’ is in any way a valid or useful concept in such a rich field of cultural appropriation and ‘memetic evolution’. I’ve always found it a very problematic concept and a futile goal. The scientific model as aphorized by Newton in 1676 has always held more appeal – “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can only make an (original? evolving?) contribution to a field by recognizing and working with all that has gone before.

I think it’s time I designed a three legged stool – though I know its not original!!!


  1. It is also an interesting thing that we tend to develop ideas and the resultant objects in concert with others without any party being aware of it. How many times have any of us created work from the vacuum of space in our own heads without knowing until later the connections that work shares with others? I am often asking, myself even more than others, “how is this work adding to the conversation already in motion rather than simply repeating what’s been said,” (as you’ve already said)?

    Maybe this is the idea of the meme at work as cultural evolution operating through the constant flood of information we are so subjected to. However, the binary root structure notion of the meme doesn’t quite cover it. Too many other connections at play affecting and effecting everything. Again, I suppose restating a statement about something Hughes seems to be talking about. I also like the three-legged stool.

    This dialog is such a constant presence in any makers life (I hope), and always twisting and folding back on itself. I think maybe we will all always work in this constantly connected way because in addition to our social and cultural conditions we are all always starting from the shared position of being a body in space. Thank you for this post so that I can fold the thought yet again.


  2. Thanks Christian.
    I don’t think I have “the vacuum of space” in my own head.
    But then again, I think I DO know that feeling!


  3. I love “fold the thought yet again” Christian. If there are such things as creativity or originality, they must be in the selection and in the moment. I do believe there is a collective unconscious menu of some kind, and that certain ideas come together for a reason at particular times. The current moment is often described as one without style – pluralistic, but if the basic process of recycling ideas and forms is really fundamental, this should be an ideal time for creative selection and recombination of forms in exciting and unpredictable ways. And then every 400 years or so you get a Caravaggio.


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