Throughout history, the ability of objects to survive has had little to do with function or aesthetics, but everything to do with cultural significance. The existence of objects is sustained by their importance to the cultures in which they are born and later pass through. In this regards, there are two main types of culturally significant objects. Those that have a cultural significance based on their relationship to power structures, usually royal or aristocratic in nature, and those that have significance based on a relationship to religion. This thesis will critique the latter relationship and how this relationship has changed or will change in a society growing increasingly secular and non-religious. Specifically this phenomena will be explored by the ways in which deeper meanings can be invested into objects through the study of the atheistic worldview.
The styles and forms of furniture and objects from the past reflect the worldview of the society in which they were designed. If this reflection is significant enough, the designed object can have the capacity to move beyond the time and place of it’s original gestation and continue it’s existence through proceeding cultures. For example, the Folding X-Type Stool was originally designed for ancient Egyptian royalty, but the form has progressed by being translated throughout history into religious contexts and finally into the secular context of today. (Lucie-Smith).
We see this progression in other examples of object design; even secular design from the 19th and 20th century is derived from an early religious forms. Kaare Klint, the forefather of Danish modernism was strongly influenced by the religiously inspired economic forms of Shaker furniture (Lanks), and German modernism was born from earlier Protestant designers reacting to the excesses of Catholicism (Betts).
Given that these perpetual forms arise from an intimate reflection of the world in which they were created, an understanding of contemporary society must be achieved to produce culturally relevant objects today. The modern world is increasingly being defined by secularism, the separation of religious activities from daily life, and atheism is increasing (Dale). Is there is a form of design deriving significance wholly from contemporary secular sources? In many ways, modernism tried to do this, via the application of rationality in design, as rationality is a fundamental aspect of the secular worldview. However, it is proposed that a study of the worldview of atheists, a contemporary social movement, may produce more culturally significant objects, and subsequently sustain their form.
The world view of atheists is more complex than just rationality and includes a strong belief in science, democracy, secularism, a curiousness about the mechanisms of nature, and feelings of wonder about the transient quality of life (Dawkins). In addition, it is felt by many leading atheists that the atheist perception of life, society, morality and especially death are very important issues for the future of atheists and society in general. How can these qualities be invested into objects? The design of objects culturally significant to atheists have the potential to become long lasting forms, but a secondary objective is to express the atheist world view in an object and thereby improve the understanding of atheism by other cultural groups.
A review of design history literature and visual research is ongoing in order to summarize the effects religion has had on the history of furniture and object design prior to the 20th century. Additionally 20th century design is being studied so as to see the effect of secularism on design and to discover any prior attempts to invest the atheist worldview into design.
An expert, archaeologist or design historian, could be consulted to answer finer questions raised by the literature review.
Atheist literature, interview and documentary television have been studied to understand the atheist culture, worldview and needs. Additionally, an online dialogue with two atheist groups is ongoing, conducted through 2 online forums, private messaging and email. Visual research is also ongoing in an attempt to analyse the symbology and graphic devices used to depict science, logic and atheism. Proposed designs are submitted online for feedback from atheist groups.
There is legitimacy in the formal manifestation of an atheist worldview into an object, based on the precedent of previous objects representing their historical worldview. However, there is seemingly little precedent for methods in which to do it. Partly this is because atheists, until recently, have not identified themselves as a group nor formed recognisable communities. This is changing as a result of the internet and also activities, such as from the scientist Richard Dawkins, who push for a bolder representation of atheism in society.
As a result, a clearer understanding of the atheist worldview can now be discovered. One unexpected discovery is that they are very individualistic and some dislike the actual idea that they share a worldview. However, their shared respect for rationality, logic, science and the processes of nature is clear, and in fact their individualism is another commonality.
The online dialogue has inspired a number of solution which are in the sketch and modeling stages. These solutions include applications of scientific symbology, hyper-rationality, and metaphorical form. It is hoped that feedback of these designs from the online atheist community will inform future iterations.
(in addition to previous bibliography published here)
Betts, P 2004, The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design, pages 66-68, University of California Press,
Radice, B 1993, Ettore Sottsass :A Critical Biography, Thames & Hudson, Limited, London.
Risatti, H 2007, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, The University of North Carolina Press, US.
COTTER, H 1996, Shakers, a Modernist and a Lasting Utopian Spirit, Accessed January 2009, Source: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F05E2DD153FF931A3575BC0A960958260
Dale, D 2009, WHO WE ARE: Generational warfare, published in The Sun-Herald, Acessed February 2009, Source:
Lanks, B 2007 The Second (and Third) Coming:A new exhibition traces the Shakers’ distinctive influence on midcentury and contemporary furniture, Accessed: February 2009, Source: http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20070620/the-second-and-third-coming
Packham R 1998, Atheist Spirituality, Acessed: January 2009, Source:
Seliger, J 2007, The Spiritual Atheist – Finding Spirituality Without Worship, Acessed: January 2009, Source: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/the-spiritual-atheist-finding-spirituality-without-worship.html
Television and Film
The Enemies of Reason, 2007, Dawkins, R (Writer, Presenter), Produced by Alan Clements, Distributed by Channel 4, UK.
The Four Horsemen: a discussion with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, 2007, Timonen, J (Producer), convened by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Source: Youtube:
The Genius of Charles Darwin, 2008, Dawkins, R (Writer, Presenter) Directed by Russell Barnes, Dan Hillman, IWC Media, Channel 4, RDF International, UK.
The Root of All Evil?, 2006, Produced by Alan Clements, Written by Richard Dawkins, Starring Richard Dawkins, Distributed by Channel 4, UK.
Dawkins, R 2005 TED Lecture: The universe is queerer than we can suppose, Long Beach, U.S Source:
Dawkins, R 2002, TED Lecture: An atheist’s call to arms, Long Beach, U.S
The Brights Movement, accessed 2009, from: http://www.the-brights.net/
Atheist Forums, accessed 2009, from: http://www.atheistforums.com/
Atheistic Forums, accessed 2009, from http://debate.atheist.net/