design language etc.design practice and theory 


the cabbalist HOD Sephirot as a semiotic sign

updated: october 2001


the tree of life by Kircher
THE TREE OF LIFE by Kircher depicts the 10 Sefirot.
The HOD sefirot has here been indicated in yellow
Click to see the enlarged image.



The Rietveld chair belonging to the manifold of all Modern Easy Chairs contains of course the general characteristics of this group or, in Peircean terms, it contains a Rhematic Indexical Sinsign. It incorporates and exemplifies what we could call * easy-chair-ness *. 

This important sign category, as an index, indicates the set of general characteristics, or the paradigm, of the group the object belongs to. In the past, now and forever. In our example we call it simply the Product Group. The large specter of this sign makes it contradictory; Merrell defines its complexity as * the becomingness of being and the beingness of becoming * (note 1). In order to know an object we must ask ourselves effectively first  what are the essential characteristics of the group to which it belongs or shall belong, in the case of Modern Easy Chairs we wonder what, exactly makes a chair Modern, Easy, Chair, or else: what is the essence of Moderness, of Easiness or Chairness. Some of these characteristics will be subject to change in time, others will be permanent. The Product Group refers on one hand to some actual existent chairs and in the same time to all similar chairs that can be designed in the future. It constitutes a semiotic reality for the interpreter, even if not always a  natural reality (note 2). 

Even a superficial overview of the examples that I have chosen for our argument shows how each designer in his personal historical and social context has given an individual interpretation of the essence of a Modern Easy Chair, contributing to the richness of the meaning of the relative Rhematic Indexical Sign. 

Some of the contents of this sign category will be transmitted to other higher sign categories in a process of semiosis. They contribute in that way to the definition of ever more general concepts, proceeding from the initial state of mere possibility towards actualization and finally reaching symbolicity and eventually become subject to recycling in new forms. Other aspects will, in time, degenerate to oblivion, or users indifference, because signs are living entities as Peirce said (CP: 6.270). In this way the chair was in the beginning a throne as a symbol of power; in the case of the red blue chair of Rietveld, it is a symbol, or a manifest as Rietveld himself defined it, of the De Stijl group and the Modern Movement tout court.



The Product Sector or, in our case, the Class of Modern Classic Lounge Chairs collimates with Hod  , or Splendor, the eight's Sephirot in the Cabbala (note 3). Hod  is, as Colin Law explains,  the appreciation of boundaries, a passion for classification, rules, detail, hair-splitting definitions (note 4). The splendor of Hod indicates obviously the splendor of the variety in divine manifestation. But Hod classifying also unites and its symbol is thus the unions of the king with the queen as we can see in this picture from the  Rosarium philosophorum of 1550. 
union of the king and the queen to see similar images visit the following link http://www.bb.com.au/johnherbert/rosarian1to10.html


Students, once they start designing, find this variety of products that already do exist perplexing to the point they feel paralyzed. But if they realize the splendor of their own creative capacity they will overcome their anxiety. 

The mentioning of the Cabbala in my analysis of design language will undoubtedly appear incomprehensible or funny or even absurd to many. And I will not deny this. One reason for it is my curiosity about the origins of our so called rationalism that linger somewhere in the Orient, probably even further away in time space than the ancient Greek.. 

The jewish way of thinking, in the Cabbala since the XII Th. cent.  of Asher ben David - in the wake of the ninth century Christian mystic John Scotus Erigen - based on the linguistic analysis of the Torah and thus of biblical texts,  seemed to me, once you look through the mystical and mystifying veils of metaphysical speculation, manifesting a determined tendency to formal logical reasoning. 

It dawned upon me that even Peirce could have followed, without actually acknowledging it, similar historical traces. As I proceeded, the similarity in Peirce's classification of signs and tracing of semiosical processes of signification became more and more evident : he even names the highest order of interpretation of perceived reality , an Argument which he also defined as * the absolute nothingness  ...in which the whole universe is involved and foreshadowed. * (CP:6.217) 

It is identical to the Cabbala's Ayin : * Wisdom comes into being out of ayin * (Job 28:12) usually translated: * Where is wisdom to be found? *. But the Hebrew word ayin can mean * nothing * as well as * where *, and various thirteenth century cabbalists employ this alternate meaning. Job's rhetorical question is thereby transformed into a mystical formula: * Divine wisdom comes into being out of nothingness *. (note 5

Hod is just one step towards the perception of Ayin that is everywhere and is perceived as bliss, here in its form of the endeavor of the researcher interested in designers of Modern Classic Chairs, with their many different and interesting ways of designing forms and functions corresponding to their individual concept of modern living. 

Such research activity precedes opportunely a project. One must acquire at least some knowledge about relevant human needs and the different ways used to satisfy them, before starting to create a new design. Many creative sparks actually ignite in this initial steps.  This bliss manifests itself also in a designers desire to create a more perfect world, as well as in the final users as a pleasure perceived by the possession, the use or the contemplation of a well designed product. 

The eighteenth century cabbalist Levy Yitshaq of Berditchev expressed this as follows: 

* When you desire to eat or drink, or to fulfill other worldly desires, and you focus your awareness on the love of God, then you elevate that physical desire to spiritual desire. Thereby you draw out the holy spark that dwells within. There is no path greater than this. For wherever you go and whatever you do - even mundane activities - you serve God. *, (note 6)
back to the page on Modern Classical Chairs
(click here for a general introduction on Peirce and the Cabbala )
back to the page on Product Analysis
note 1 Floyd Merrell, Signs Grow. Semiosis and Life Processes, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996, p.88
note 2 Merrell, op.cit., p.52
note 3 look at my page on the Cabbala
note 4 Colin Law e-mail: cal@hplb.hpl.hp.com
note 5 Naniel C.Matt, The essential Cabbala. The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, Harper, San Francisco, 1996 Paperback (1995), p.182
note 6 Matt, op..cit. , p.151

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   andries van onck