Emerging Designers in the Studio Cave: A Story of Becoming

Author: Lindsay Tan

Interior design education prepares students for professional practice in a variety of specializations, such as residential, corporate, hospitality, and healthcare design. To address the broad needs of these specializations the body of knowledge for interior designers spans both the physical and social sciences (Martin & Guerin, 2005) and incorporates multiple perspectives, including those from environmental psychology, proxemics, semiotics, phenomenology, and anthropology (Tan, 2011).

According to Martin & Guerin (2005), the “broadest view possible [of interior design] … [considers] the natural environment, context, human values, function, and aesthetics” (p.52) as contributors to human-environment well-being. What is not being examined within the context of this paper is the field of interior design itself. Rather, we are considering the role of design in shaping daily life. In fact, theorists across multiple disciplines have issued a challenge to examine not only what we build, but how we build it and, in turn, how these buildings frame who we are and who we will become – both individually and as a society (Tan, 2011). In particular, we will be examining how the studio experience is shaped by design through symbolic associations with the cave as birthplace, den, and cage.

This challenge to examine how we build space and shape human life could have far reaching, cross-disciplinary implications. Exploration has been hindered, however, because each field’s contributions have historically been developed as an independent line of inquiry, each focused on but a portion of the whole (Preziosi, 1979). Only within the last few years has the emerging discipline known as environmental symbology attempted to connect these perspectives into a unified theoretical framework “of symbolic meaning within the human environment including personal, sociocultural, and mythic contexts of understanding” (Tan, 2011, p.39). Also described as symbology of the built environment (Clark, 2008a, 2008b, 2009), this area of study is generally identified as a sub-field within environment and behavior research due to its focus on the human-environment relationship (Tan, 2011). The focus of such work, to date, has been on the role of the interior environment where, according to Day (2002), humans spend upwards of 90% of their lives.

Environmental symbology is also closely related to work conducted in symbolic anthropology and semiotics. For example, Barthes’ work (1977) with second-order signs, also termed connotations, could be seen to parallel some of Tan’s work (2011) with communal meaning of symbolic artifacts. However, as described previously, the scope of environmental symbology also includes personal and mythic contexts beyond the realm of the semiotician. The work at hand examines the studio experience through the language of its symbolic associations and therefore rests within a framework that is both semiotic and symbolic. However, this work is primarily a narrative exploration of the design studio through the symbologist’s lens. Here we will consider not only the metaphorical symbols that shape the studio experience but also the meaning behind those metaphors. Consider the studio as cave, a story of becoming that envisions both the cave, and the studio, in a new light.

Before delving into the metaphorical symbols of the studio cave, though, we must first understand that the classroom is a multilayered experience of students interacting with the already-animate world of design education. This experience, enriched with personal, sociocultural, and mythic context, can be explored through the language of symbols as a story of becoming that reveals practical implications for the classroom.

To understand the symbolist nature of human culture we must first identify some of the roles played by symbols and symbolic language in our every day lives. We use symbols in our dreams to communicate between our unconscious and conscious mind (Jung, 1989; Jung et al., 1964) and we use symbols in society to communicate rules and appropriate behaviors (McLaren, 1985; Ortner, 1984; Turner, 1967). Symbols are considered such an important part of social interaction that they even become a language unto themselves (Fromm, 1951; Hall, 1959) and that symbolic language, in turn, is evident in every artifact of culture (Tan, 2011). We shape the environment around us, embedding it with this symbolic language (Fromm, 1951; Hall, 1959, 1966; Preziosi, 1979; Turner, 1967), integrating with other forms of communication (Preziosi, 1979), shaping behavioral practices (Barker & Associates, 1978; Barker & Wright, 1955) and social rituals (Turner, 1967), and connecting to form massive constellations (Tan, 2011) that span all of human culture. In short, artifacts of symbolic language are everywhere and touch every aspect of our lives.

To study the role of the studio experience in shaping education then becomes more than how it is shaped; it also urges us to ask what is the meaning of the shape of things? The metaphorical symbols we adopt within an environment influence how we think and behave, and who we become within that framework. Studio and cave are just two of the many shapes of human culture and they can be interpreted through many metaphors. Here we will explore three symbolic metaphors that shape the studio cave. First, we cross the threshold into the unknown with the cave as birthplace, where the studio teacher holds all the answers in a world of uncertainty. Next, we see the cave as den, where rules of the studio must be challenged in order to grow beyond intellectual relativism – the belief that all solutions to a design problem are equally valid. Last, the cave becomes a cage that separates us from the real world much like Plato’s allegorical cave (Plato, 360 BCE), and it becomes clear that emerging practitioners must break free from the limits of the classroom to continue their life long learning and growth. Consider now the studio cave as a story of becoming that envisions the cave, and the studio, in this new light.

Huppatz (2012), for example, describes the cave as the first human expression of “interiority”, a term borrowed from McCarthy (2005). To Huppatz, the cave should not be dismissed as merely dead space in which the first peoples took shelter; the cave plays an active role in the creation of interiority as a living, multi-sensory experience shaped by “humans actively engaging with an already animate world” (6). For the first peoples, the cave was physical protection and cultural artifact, rich with symbolic associations.

Prehistorian Lewis-Williams (2002) posits that the cave was a deeply meaningful artifact, a phenomenological sacred space that interwove function, decoration and culture. So, too, could we consider the studio an interweaving of function, decoration and culture that arises from human interaction with the as-built space. Students lay claim to studio space through the natural accumulation of personal artifacts – tools, resources, symbolic decorative objects – and develop a strong sense of place attachment, belonging, and territoriality. In short, the studio cave becomes the den.

In exploring the studio cave as birthplace we will see that this already-animate world of education holds both a threat and a promise, and students feel a very real vulnerability. This vulnerability can be addressed by exploring our origins in the first interior – the cave.

In envisioning the studio cave as den we see that the sense of safety and belonging fostered in the studio cave can create a flawed dualist thinking – in or out, yours or mine, right or wrong – that has far reaching ramifications. It is only by challenging the rules of the cave that we see the evolution of design thinkers and eventually the adoption of the professional mindset necessary for practice.

Symbology of the Studio Cave

As humans, we use stories to learn from the past and to shape the future that is to come. As designers, we craft words and images that tell the story of a space that is yet to be. We create spaces that describe who people want to be, or how they want to be perceived by others. The power of a symbol, then, is to transcend the limits of facts and figures to communicate an idea in its purest form. These symbolic stories are told through the design of interiors, interfaces, and experiences in all their forms within human culture.

It is not only what we build, but how we build it and how we carry on our day to day lives within. “Buildings, spaces between them, journeys amongst and through them—these are the frame for daily life. Different frames make different lives, influence how we think, feel, behave—how we are’’ (Day, 2002, p. 5). It is important, therefore, for designers to understand these frames and how they shape, and are shaped by, their human inhabitants (Clark, 2008a).

In exploring cave as birthplace we will see the commonalities shared between first year students and the first peoples as we cross the threshold into the unknown. This already-animate world of education holds both a threat and a promise, and students feel a very real vulnerability that should be addressed. By exploring our origins in the first interior – the cave – we build a shared foundation from which students grow together and define a territorial den within the studio space.

Where do we come from? This is one of the enduring questions of humanity. There is a sense that to know one’s origin is to know one’s self. The compulsion to seek out our beginnings drives adopted children to find their birth parents and immigrants to track their genealogical heritage back to the mother country. As a designer, this compulsion manifests as a desire to know the origin of the profession – the first interior space shaped by human hands – the cave.

It is a compelling story of professional heritage, and one that can empower emerging interior designers as part of the first studio. The studio experience involves a certain necessary vulnerability that can be balanced by helping students to know themselves by knowing their origin.

Birthing the First Studio

If we were to approach the first studio as we approach the first interior, then the studio cave is to be examined as part of an already animate world further shaped by students’ active engagement; a living, multisensory experience.

One layer of this experience is the challenge and reward of working among other designers. The perception by students that they will be judged in comparison to design peers creates a strong sense of vulnerability, as does their desire for their contributions to be acknowledged as uniquely valuable. In short, they want to prove themselves.

In fact, it is often necessary for students to do just that – prove themselves – in early studios because, in many cases, only those students who meet the criteria required for formal acceptance into higher level studios will continue on within their chosen major. Hence, the vulnerability they feel entering the first studio may be well-justified and therefore even more important to address.

The first studio, as a gateway to upper division studios, becomes a semester-long metaphorical threshold entered the moment they cross the physical threshold of the studio space and transcended only after a semester-long contemplative and exploratory journey through the studio experience.

The threshold is an invitation to enter, an impetus to begin a journey into the unknown. It is also a contract that sets forth the rules and conditions for entrance into the deeper studio cave. This studio experience will be filled  with challenges never before faced, and unprecedented growth for emerging designers. The studio offers a chance for an emerging designer to be reborn through novel ideation. It can be shaped into a protected place where individuals come together to collaborate and support one another. It may be precisely for these reasons that the professors who lead first studios may exhibit parental attitudes and behaviors, and that students may come to think of the first studio as home. Design students’ sense that this is a defining moment in life should not be undervalued, but the sense of vulnerability may be balanced by uncovering our common roots in the first interior and building a strong, shared foundation from which to grow as designers.

Why is it important to uncover the origins of the first interior within the context of the first studio? The first studio, like the cave as first interior, should be considered a sanctuary in some regard. Students will be challenged, yes, but also empowered within an environment that has boundaries “thick enough to hold a group doing even turbulent work, with individuals willing to be vulner­able in order to learn” (Lakey, 2010, p. 11). Imagine visualizing the first interior together with students through narrative inquiry. Consider prompting students to write their own first cave narratives to explore the origins of interiority, for to imagine the first cave is to call up a shared memory from beyond personal experience, something Jung refers to as the “collective unconscious” (Jung, 1989, p. 160). This fictional exploration of the cave experience should place the student in the first person, as shown in the example below:

We rest, nestled on the dusty floor, surrounded by warm bodies. Above us, the gently sloping ceiling disappears into the smoke-blackened darkness. Its stalactite fingers reach down and softly cup the edges of the cave floor with cool, smooth hands. Pools of water collect in the pores of its skin; we can hear the soft drip, drop echoing into the shadowed passages beyond. Charcoal and burnt sienna figures tattooed on the walls dance in the firelight. They play along with the games of the pale-palmed story-teller. The night breeze blows into the mouth of the cave, smells of pollen and a coming rain, but when it is still the air is full of sweet dry herbs and the remnant aromas of dinner. The cave; our first home.

This narrative exploration provides for the students the common ground necessary to begin the studio journey together. Further, it places the origins of the interior design profession in the birthplace of human creativity (Bataille, 2009). As a designer, I find this a powerful story and an empowering metaphor for future professionals.

The place of birth is considered sacred in human culture. We preserve the birthplaces of great people. We immortalize ideas where they were first spoken or written down. To accept the notion of the cave as the first human space is to acknowledge the cave as a deeply meaningful artifact, which “suggests a fundamental transformation . . . that defies an understanding of contemporary interior design as superficial and materialistic” (Huppatz, 2012, p. 6).

The story of the cave as first human space positions the interior designer, like healer, as one of the first professions. This is the story of professional heritage, and one that can empower emerging designers as part of the first studio. Students cross the threshold into the unknown of the first studio with a certain necessary vulnerability. Ground students in a shared origin and they can grow together from a strong, shared experience that provides a sense of safety and belonging within the studio. In time, this sense of collective ownership may come to redefine the studio space as a territorial den. This den metaphor carries its own symbolic associations as well as implications for the evolution of design thinkers.

Evolution of Design Thinkers

In exploring cave as birthplace we saw the commonalities shared between first year students and the first peoples’ as they crossed the threshold into the unknown. By sharing in a common origin story, students build a sense of belonging and territorial ownership over the studio experience. In exploring cave as den we will see that the sense of safety and belonging fostered in the studio cave can create a flawed dualist thinking – in or out, yours or mine, right or wrong – that has far reaching ramifications. It is only by challenging the rules of this cave that we can see the evolution of design thinkers and eventually the adoption of the professional mindset necessary for practice.

The physical manifestation of a den, in any form, is only secondary to its social meaning, which is defined by the behavior of people within each territory. The symbolic agreement among people that describes the location and meaning of a social boundary is a form of social contract, which may or may not manifest in the physicality of the built environment. We can think of the den as being defined by its social boundaries, which can in turn become an expression of the separation of two fundamental territories: in or out, yours or mine, right or wrong.

Huppatz makes a compelling case for the interiority of the cave, I think, but misses the mark in asserting that humans are the only creatures who manipulate their existing conditions to create a more suitable environment (2012, p. 6). In every spider web, fox den, and bird nest we see our fellow animals shaping their surroundings to suit their individual needs. To shape space is one of the most natural behaviors of the human animal and, by extension, human culture. This is a fundamental and empowering connection between design and the natural world.

Therefore, I would argue that Huppatz suffers from flawed dualist thinking in suggesting that the manipulation of an environment necessitates its separation from nature (6). How unnatural is a spider web? When a bird goes to roost for the night, is it retreating from the natural world? Is a fox in its den different from a fox in the field? For humans, the act of shaping space does not divide us from the natural world. Rather, this disconnect is an artifact of how we shape space. Just as the fox in the field is the same as the fox in the den, so to is the designer in the field the same as the designer in the studio. The studio experience embodies no fundamental separation from the  “real world” and yet many students perceive a duality. How often can students be overheard saying, “when we’re in the real world”, as if there is some inherent unreality to the studio?

This type of dualist thinking is common in intermediate designers whose limited knowledge and experience tend toward this bipolar sort of reasoning. This can manifest as an over-reliance on the teacher’s input, e.g. “is this right?” or “do you like this?”, it may show itself as an internalized sense of absolutes along the lines of, “That isn’t how to do it.” Where does this false sense of dualist thinking arise? There may be many contributing factors. For example, in part it may be part of the pedagogical process of development at the intermediate stage of professional education. If that is the case it may be unavoidable but ultimately temporary as students continue along the path of their cognitive, social, and professional trajectory.

However, let’s look more closely at the role of the studio cave in nurturing duality. Consider, for a moment, that in the first studio we explored the first interior, using this experience and students’ natural vulnerability to develop a bond among these fellow designers. That bond, though valuable, necessitates a certain duality: those that belong and those that do not. Once the studio den has been established it becomes a place of refuge and protection, marked by a strong sense of place attachment, belonging and territoriality through collective ownership. For example, it is possible that a new student introduced to an already-bonded studio cohort may never be fully assimilated into the social group. Similarly, the entire cohort may – consciously or unconsciously – undermine a new teacher who is disliked by some of the dominant students in the studio den.

In exploring cave as den we see that the sense of safety and belonging fostered in the studio cave can create a dualist thinking – in or out, yours or mine, right or wrong – that has far reaching ramifications. The symbolic associations of the studio have, as expected, taken on a life of their own. Comfortable in the knowledge that they 1) belong and 2) understand the rules of the studio den, these designers may no longer be challenging  themselves to grow beyond the limits of what is known. Therefore, it is only by challenging the rules of the studio cave that we will see the evolution of design thinkers beyond the dualist phase of the cave as den and eventually the adoption of the professional mindset necessary for practice.

This challenge begins with the transition from a parental teacher to a Socratic mentor providing not answers, but questions. The mentor’s approach may be focused on specific guidelines, such as those described below:

  • Pose problems without a single, right solution
  • Pattern how to think, rather than what to think, about problems
  •  Encourage personal methods of discovery and problem solving
  • Provide guidance to students in seeking answers on their own
  • Ask questions designed to help students think more deeply about their work
  • Provide feedback that encourages self-reflection and self-criticism

Here emerging designers are introduced to a world beyond the safety of the cave, a form of design thinking that accepts no one right answer. Students learn that the process is as important as the solution, and that there are many solutions to the design problem. In time this newfound intellectual relativism will reveal to them the ultimate limitations of the studio cave and lead them to the edge of the den, the perceived division between two markedly different territories, where they will begin a journey of discovery into the new unknown of professional practice.

Exodus from the Studio Cave

Consider that, much like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave (Plato, 360 BCE), our students have been within the studio cave since their – metaphorical – childhood. Some may know nothing else of design beyond what has been shown to them by their professors, while others may only have limited professional experience through internships where “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (para. 8). This is why, at last, we must come to terms with the ultimate limitations of the studio that may stunt emerging designers’ life long learning.

Only by venturing out of the cave, “up a steep and rugged ascent” (Plato, 360 BCE, para.11), can they leave behind the worldview of a student and embrace that of an emerging professional. The safety of the first studio cave was the realm of the beginner. The intermediate first lived by, and then challenged, the limitations of the cave as den. Neither of these worldviews serve the advanced student who is prepared to enter the professional world. Therefore, the journey of discovery is one every emerging practitioner must undertake. By breaking free of the studio cave in a journey of discovery designers are then able to let go of the student worldview and embrace that of the emerging professional. So what defines the professional worldview?

Shulman suggests that “[i]n the work of a professional, the performances of practice must not only be skilled and theoretically grounded; they must be characterized by integrity, by a commitment to responsible, ethical service” (2005, p.18). If this is true, then the worldview of a professional may also be dedicated to integrity of practice and responsible, ethical service.

Sullivan similarly thinks that “[b]y taking responsibility through one’s work for ends of social importance, an individual’s skills and aspirations acquire value for others” (2005, p. 30). This may be why he includes service as one of three key features of a profession, also including formal education and apprenticeship focused on gaining specialized knowledge as well as publicly-recognized, self-regulated standards of practice. From Sullivan’s perspective, social importance is at the heart of professional importance and may be another way to approach the professional worldview.

Are values and attitudes – including those described by Shulman and Sullivan – the only way to define an emerging professionals’ worldview? Perhaps not, but students’ values do play a critical role in determining future career choices (Riggenbach, 2008). Further, students may be more committed to professional goals when they perceive a clear connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and what they will be doing in their future professional work (Leppel, 2001). So the perspective shared by Shulman (2005) and Sullivan (2005) may offer one model by which mentors can encourage students to development a professional worldview.


The studio cave as a story of becoming offers to ground students in a shared origin from which they grow together, and subsequently challenges that growth by offering problems without a single, right answer. Ultimately, this intellectual relativism will lead them beyond the studio on a journey of discovery and life long learning within professional practice. Thus, we can see the studio cave as constellation of metaphorical symbols that shape design education.

We shape the studio experience, embedding it with symbolic language that communicates attitudes and guidelines for behavior. These symbols of the studio cave become the framework through which students experience design education, so to explore the role of the studio experience in shaping education becomes more than how it is shaped; it also urges us to ask what is the meaning of the shape of things? Through the story of becoming, we see that the cave, and the studio, are just two of the many shapes of human culture but that these shapes are the framework for how we think and behave, and who we will become as individuals and as a profession.


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About the Author

Lindsay Tan, MFA, IDEC, EDAC, NCIDQ is an interdisciplinary design thinker with over a decade of professional experience. Her design work includes hospitality, healthcare, residential and corporate interiors, media, interfaces and exhibits, visual merchandising, and production for stage and film.  She teaches interior design at Auburn University.

Designed by Chris Orchard