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In the Autumn of 2015 the Barbican hosted an excellent exhibition of the Eames called The World of Charles and Ray Eames. As two of the most important designers of the 20th century who were active over four decades, the exhibition showcased many different aspects of their portfolio, ranging from architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, to painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multi-media installation and exhibitions, as well as new models for education. Walking through the galleries a short video caught my attention. Charles was recounting what he called The Banana Leaf Parable at one of the lectures to his students. The parable is an attempt to convey the idea of what Charles and Ray called "way-it-should-be-ness". It's the idea that if something is really well designed, then the notion of it having been designed won't come up at all, because it has an honest grace that looks effortless. After listening to the parable, I felt compelled to transcribe it in its entirety in my sketchbook. I have never found a written copy of it anywhere else, so here is what I hope will be as much food for thought for you as it was for me.

The Banana Leaf Parable

Among those villagers with very little income particularly in the South of India, there are many who for generations follow the custom of eating their food off of a banana leaf.

Those just a little higher on the economic scale prefer copper thali -a large dish with a raised edged on which the entire meal is eaten. But much more preferred to the copper is the brass thali. This, and a cup-like dish called katari (sp?) react better with the food and are used by most Indians. However, still more desirable is bell-bronze, and those who can afford it, enjoy an increased status that comes with it.

Next up the scale of affluence comes perhaps the katari and the thali that have been turned from the stone. And the process goes on and on through silver plated and solid silver onto gold and bejewelled thali and so fort. But there is a step still beyond that. Those who have the means and are able to choose what they wish and with this, the experience and sensitivity with which to make a genuinely rewarding selection, will often choose a banana leaf.

This, like other rediscoveries and transformations that come with understanding, in the sense of "this-is-how-it-should-be-ness", seems to increase the seriousness, heighten economy, and broaden the base of pleasure, while at the same time reducing the output of gross energy necessary to produce it. I'm not prepared to say that the banana leaf that the first group eats off of is the same as the last group's, but it's that process that has happened within the man that changes the banana leaf.


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