Wright, L.
Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK

Keywords: vernacular; product durability; concept; indigenous; design thinking.

Abstract: The term vernacular occupies the ‘space between’ – balancing anonymous design and authored products, and raises many interesting questions concerning user–object relations and product life. On the one hand it can question the position of regionalism in product design and the cultural attachment of objects to localities; on the other, applies to a wider discourse of sustainability, material efficiencies and durability.

This paper will focus on vernacular design and how location-specificity in object culture, can challenge issues of throwaway consumer culture. The vernacular object reveals that identity is of primary significance due to the utilization of localized materials and forms. This is often the result of evolution rather than planning, and the resultant product expression is regional and site-specific. Vernacular object-traits are unmistakable and as such are markers of defined spaces. The immediacy of materials and an emergent object style could be supposed to conjure the environment more than any other. The fundamental issues of the enviro-product relationship, material efficiency and user-centricities, are central to understanding aspects of product longevity. They are a portrayal of indigenous character, but also the indigenous experience. Are vernacular products examples of socially conscious design because they express the environment of derivation? Could they be a model for product durability and sustainability?

The paper argues that place-defining objects are an ‘under history’, and as such, have been neglected in a current discussion of product lifespan. It considers the key issues of the concept of the vernacular and argues that it is worthy of wider inquiry in the context of the design-thinking discourse post 2005, to explore its potential value as a contemporary model for product durability.


This discussion focuses on a discourse about the vernacular and its application to contemporary issues of sustainability and product lifespan. It concerns debates about the vernacular as a concept, but specifically vernacular as a manifestation in the design of objects. There is a legacy of scholarship concerning the vernacular that is stronger in some disciplines than others, for example literature and architecture. In design history it is a neglected field of study and according to Glassie (1999, p. 8) the study of the vernacular requires “transdisciplinary attention” which, in the study of products, is between “history and anthropology”. He suggests the historian is a “cultural geographer” (199, p. 27) as the study of the vernacular is about distinct characteristics of similar social patterns. So the vernacular object could be considered to occupy the ‘space between’, both as a field of
study and as a type of product not necessarily driven by professional engagement and commerce. As an ‘outsider’ or ‘under history’ it may be useful to examine the theoretical issues concerning the vernacular object more thoroughly, with the intention to re-position it in a contemporary debate of product design, the environment and durability.

Defining the vernacular

Vernacular is a form that evidences the influence of the environment and the place of origin. In this sense it is not just an object but also ‘an effect’. (Jameson, 1992) Kouwenhoven (1962, p.259) comments “no detailed record is kept until long after the patterns have crystallized and have become habitual”. Therefore a change in conditions enables new vernacular form to emerge, but they also require repetitiveness for the traits to be acknowledged as commonplace. He explains that it is difficult to trace the emergence of vernacular form because they are not recorded, and only when they are distinct, do they tend to reach a wider public attention or conscience. He uses the example of the 19th century European emigrant’s axe which they brought with them to the USA. It was only when these tools were beyond repair that new ones were forged, subsequently some of these rural implements were ‘improved upon’. Written documents stated that there were ‘American’ features applied to objects such as the hoe and the axe, which were not evident in their European counterparts. In essence, the original tools became distinct to and of their new environment as a result of necessity and geographical circumstances. This example is typical of how vernacular characteristics are established.

It implies that the vernacular emerges as a result of a process, which is interesting, as vernacular form is often labelled as ‘traditional’. The term ‘tradition’ suggests a prescribed set of characteristics, yet vernacular form is an evolving form, which at some point becomes settled, or stable. So, to reach public recognition, repetitive vernacular characteristics within a small geographical area, create a recognizable set of characteristics specific to the locale. As a consequence, it is at this point in its process of evolution that the vernacular is recognized as traditional. This process implies a threshold, or a point at which the vernacular is created; it oscillates between an isolated, localized form and recognizable prevalence, that is expressive of the region.

Architectural history includes a broad discourse on the vernacular, and Brunskill (1971, p. 23) determines where vernacular begins by dividing architecture by type and developing a theory of the “vernacular zone”. He divides domestic building by type, “The Great House, the large house, the small house and the cottage” (1971, p. 22). He considers the small house as the most prevalent form, and therefore where ’vernacular’ begins:

“For the human backbone of the nation there were the small houses. The ordinary yeoman, the tenant farmer, the miller, the smith, the minor official, the unfavoured parson, the shopkeeper, the schoolteacher, were people of significance in the village, but of little standing in national or provincial society. They lived in
small houses, and their dwellings make up the main body of material, which is recognized as domestic vernacular architecture.” (Brunskill, 1971, p. 22)

In Brunskill’s definition, vernacular is a term given to the ‘zone’ of the ubiquitous, and in the realm of the ‘ordinary’.

Immediacy of materials, identity and place

If ordinary embraces the everyday, then materials prevalent to an area must be part of the vernacular process. Brunskill (1971, p. 26) comments that local materials (not imported) create vernacular form, so the immediacy of materials contributes to a distinct form. Risatti (2007, p. 60) emphasizes that material is what contributes to the tangible physicality of the object and therefore, “the point of origin being the point of inspiration.” According to Lupton and Miller (2009, p. 23), it is the “truth to materials”, which is fundamental to establishing the vernacular which requires a “transparency about where goods come from and how they are made”. That is, place and local materials are integral and their combination conjures the local environment more than any other. Koewenhoven (1962, p. 259) defines the vernacular as creating, “indigenous beauty out of crude materials”. He suggests that a plain, uncluttered form is what segregates the vernacular from “cultivated forms” which he describes as an expression of “unreasonable fussiness.” Kowenhoven calls the vernacular “unpretentious” and which suggests that it is not swayed by national stylistic influences. Therefore a recognizable vernacular form has to be significantly variant to the dominant aesthetic and demonstrate its distinction through material and form. This hypothesis is supported by Brunskill (1971, p. 26) who comments that the vernacular has to:

“have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable on an international scale.”

Therefore the vernacular object is the result of a design process WITH constraints. The impact of the constraints – the place, people and materials – are key contributors in the creation of indigenous form.

The inequity or distinct character of an indigenous object to those more dominant (national) is the result of local production. The proximity of the vernacular form to its environs in its use of materials, its production and its style, are therefore considered to be expressions of place.

Therefore the vernacular reveals identity as a primary significance. Vernacular forms prove the “significance of quite localized geographical factors” according to Brunskill (1971, p. 18). So we can position vernacular expression in a context of the cultural attachment of objects to localities. Koewenhowen (1962) comments that the vernacular offers “a direct, uninhibited response” to the environment and the evolving forms “firmly rooted in the contemporary experience”. So the vernacular both emerges and responds from and to, its environment. The key concerns are available materials, and a continuation of existing forms as a pattern or model within a culture of the everyday. The repetitive nature of these fundamental characteristics removes it from dominant design aesthetics, creating its ‘outsider’ credentials. So the enviro-product relationship is central to understanding the vernacular, it is the result of “social formation”. (Risatti, 2007, p.61) This phrase is useful because it relates the process of making to the place of origin, as part of an embedded or immersive practice. The vernacular provides us with a site-specific, place-defining object; the paradox is that it is both ordinary and distinct. According to Clifford and King (2006), “the unusual, the special …may be important factors in giving a place a sense of itself.“

Literature suggests that sense of place is bound more rigidly to a rural context not urban, as rural communities establish a different way of being (Thomas et al., 2011). Brunskill (1971, p. 15) suggests that the vernacular is prevalent in rural culture because it “remained intact, ….. traditions accumulated over several centuries”. He also suggests that the vernacular is no longer evolving because we are generationally disassociated from agrarian life. If this is accurate, then it provides a reason why the vernacular has been neglected in a contemporary debate – we see the vernacular as a style of the rural past (tradition), and not having contemporary currency to contemporary urban society.

The vernacular as an interventionist model

If the vernacular is an example of social formation and demonstrates the

“conceptualization of the relationship between necessity; purpose; function; form; material and technique” (Risatti 2007, p. 63),

is it applicable to contemporary culture? In an era of design-thinking we can explore if the vernacular model is applicable to a wider discourse of environmental concerns and product durability.

In 2005, Thakara stated we are in a period of “design mindfulness”, (p. 226) suggesting that we are in an era of rethinking design practice. Brunskill (1971, p. 26) comments that the vernacular has to “have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable on an international scale” beyond its commercial boundaries. The consequence of which is that the ‘concerned’ designer can reconfigure the design paradigm to address social rather than economic issues. Contemporary discourse in design uses the phrase transformation design, which describes a process that “asks designers to shape behaviour – of people, of systems, of organizations – as well as form” (Chick & Micklethwaite, 2011, p. 37). The authors explain that it involves participatory “principles and methods” (2011, p. 37) and that a sustainable solution would create a “shared story” (2011, p. 97). These key concepts are easily appropriated to the vernacular model as it exemplifies the integration of people, environment and materials; thus shaping behaviour and shaped BY behaviour. In this sense it is an example of participatory design as defined by Chick and Micklethwaite (2011). The vernacular model embodies three of the key elements that the authors (2011, p. 106) recommend, “design modification and design pragmatism” and using “existing design processes … as starting `point”. The vernacular model can be mapped onto this discourse and in doing so is a form of intervention or activism as:

“design activism is design that explicitly supports a particular cause, which is outside the core concerns of mainstream, commercially driven professional design practice” (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011, p. 59).

This relates to the ‘outsider’ ideology of the vernacular whose core concerns (discussed earlier) are the ordinary, significant only to everyday, and part of the non-professional design process. According to Chick and Micklethwaite (2011, p. 62), design activism seeks to be “inclusive” and is “seeking out alternative visions for society” for sustainable design futures. They advocate an interlocking system where economy, society and environment are integral, leading to a state of ‘equitable, bearable and viable’ product design. Thus creating an extended lifespan, which, they argue, is part of sustainable future. Walker (2006, p. 17) suggests that the phrase sustainability should be used to articulate shared principles and values to reinforce the notion of a ‘shared story’. The notion of the collective rather than the individual underlies these ideas and numerous authors (such as Chick and Micklethwaite, Walker, Fry) are advocating similar ideologies for our design future. According to Chick and Micklethwaite (2011, p. 97) it relies on a set of values, which have been “increasingly forgotten in the rapid growth of industrialized modern society”. This resonates with Brunskill’s thesis of the early 1970s, which suggests that the reason the vernacular was extinct was due to the generational dislocation from agrarianism. The design-thinking debates around sustainability (post 2005) focus on a shift in attitude of which the concerned designer is key. Fry (2011, p. 252) advocates “radical change” and foretells a future in which

“status related conspicuous consumption, commodity desires and aspirational consumerism are all ill-fated and will die”.

His ‘living otherwise’ manifesto includes:

“a new kind of active life that is highly social and very much orientated toward cultural production and a material culture that is smaller but enriched” (2011, p. 252).

It is within this paradigm that the vernacular has a role to play; ‘smaller’ in terms of scale, ‘enriched’ in terms how the vernacular embeds itself in cultural significance because it emerges from, rather than, is imposed upon. The vernacular concept is useful because it can intervene in the design process at inception. Lewis and Gertsakis (2001) discuss the need to have a DfE approach (design for environment):

“the fundamental objective is to design products with the environment in mind and to assume some responsibility for the products environmental consequences as they relate to specific decisions and actions during the design process” (2001, p. 16).

They mention, “products are often thrown away because they have lost their social and cultural attractiveness”, and suggest the key is a change in consumer attitude from one that values “ownership” to one which values “utilization” (2001, p. 189). They recommend that design should develop new “solution strategies” (2001, p. 191) which are user- centred. On reflection, the vernacular model is pertinent because it counteracts the social /cultural trend associated with a throwaway culture. It is socially conscious design emerging from a site-specific need, simultaneously expressing the environment of derivation. In contemporary discourse, Slow Design thinking embraces an approach that facilitates the vernacular model:

“Slow design reveals spaces and experiences in everyday life; considers the real and potential “expressions” of artifacts and environments; rely on sharing, co- operation so that designs may continue to evolve into the future; encourages people to become active participants in the design process; recognizes that richer experiences can emerge from artifacts and environments over time.” (Strauss & Fuad- Luke, 2008)

Attention to detail is inherent in slow design principles as it emphasizes that awareness of ordinary traits (particular to place), requires patience. As Clifford and King (2006) comment, “differentiating the ordinary demands close observation.” The key issues in the quotation are ‘everyday’, ‘emerge’ and, evolve’, and these are the exact terms used earlier in this discussion in defining the vernacular. Therefore we could resurrect the concept of the vernacular from “an extinct form (one which was a fixed entity at one time) but is no longer in used for contemporary form” (Heath, 2009, p. 19), to an active agent in contemporary transformatory design practice.


Vernacular is an environmentally sensitive concept as it arises from socio-eco characteristics on a small scale. Vernacular is not about re- creating, mimicking or replicating existing product forms; the concept offers an exploratory investigation of materials, expertise, form and socio/cultural economic conditions within a designated locale. Therefore facilitating NEW forms. The historical legacy of vernacular has been predominantly rural but it could be applied to an urban context. This requires a shift in thinking in order to create an intertwined design process ensuring user– object relations and sustained product life. Crucially, the vernacular object portrays indigenous character, but also enables indigenous experience; and as such creates a sense of attachment. This is one method of ensuring product durability as throwaway is disenfranchised.

To conclude, the vernacular is a dialect, a form of localized narrative. It is socially constructed through distinction of form but is not fixed; more importantly, it is a concept with flexible outcomes. The emergent form takes time to form but once stable, is visually expressive of place thus providing a model of continuity and community. It allows new forms to arise (albeit slowly) but at the same time, is localized and place-bound. In essence, vernacular is a response; creating commonalities that are uncommon. Fry (2011, p.45) comments we have ‘commonality in difference” and this is exactly the role of vernacular. It celebrates difference simultaneously with identity and sense of place, and therefore offers a sustained relevancy. Its transforming properties could be resurrected and re-purposed to create product durability. Crucially the concept of the vernacular converts ‘matters of fact to matters of concern’ (Latour in Brown, 2004, p.225) which is the underlying issue of many of the contemporary discourses on product sustainability’s and design practice.


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