The Ubuntu project attempted to re-contextualize the sound and aesthetic of the ancient African tongue drum within the twenty-first century by creating a piece of non-electronic sound resonating furniture that enables creative expression and communal interaction. The framework and development of this piece relates to the African philosophy Ubuntu: The essence of being human and interconnected. The design requires no particular skill set for its use, making it accessible to a large user demographic. The project’s development was intensive, involving both two and three dimensional design explorations, user studies, and extensive material experimentation.
In a world that is virtually more connected than ever before in history, yet simultaneously more isolated, this project sought to encourage multicultural interactions within a communal space. Sound harnesses the ability to communicate celebration, movement, emotion, and creativity. Most importantly, sound can unite people, generations, cultures and places, and embrace their diversity. This project focuses on the design object’s capacity to enable a user experience bound to a specific moment in time through the creation of sound and to a specific place by its location.
The nature of the inquiry focused on designing a piece of sound resonating furniture that would encourage multicultural interaction within a communal space. The design needed to be functional as furniture as well as sustainable; material selection and longevity were important criteria for fabrication. The design opportunity lay in combining two distinct object types (musical instrument and furniture) into one design, while exploring the cultural richness associated with drumming in Africa. I saw the opportunity to apply design and ergonomics as a means to enhance human experience and interaction through the tongue drum.
“There is scarcely any other West African art or custom that has aroused more widespread wonder and curiosity… as that connected with the wonderful West African Drum Language” (Royal African Society, 1923). Extensive research and the creation of these drums opened the door to cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of African culture and human communication.
African Tongue Drum
The African Tongue Drum, also known as the slit or talking drum, belongs to the idiophone family of instruments; which use vibrations for resonance. Primitively, these drums were a section of a tree trunk, hollowed out, two to six feet in length. A series of one-inch slits were cut, running the entire length of the log. The log would be struck with a stick to resonate tones. Considered by many to be the first telephone, indigenous tribes in western Africa used these primitive instruments as speech surrogates and to communicate messages over long distances. Additionally, these drums were used within ceremonies and rituals to dictate to listeners the dance to be performed.
At its core, Ubuntu articulates a basic compassion and respect for others; it serves as a philosophical and spiritual foundation for African culture. “Ubuntu inspires us to expose ourselves to others, to encounter the difference of their humanness so as to inform and enrich our own” (Sidane, 1994). More broadly, it is a unifying vision of the world, emphasizing the interconnection of humankind (Shutte, 1993).
To effectively encourage interaction, the design hinged on its ability to maximize sound resonance and tonal quality. This was achieved by considering factors such as the use of extremely dense hardwoods with linear grain structure, the thickness of the soundboard, the volume and dimensioning of the sound-box, the width and length dimensions of the notes, and minimal surface area coming into contact with the ground plane. All these factors contributed to either a perfect pitch or off pitch tonal resonance. The notes or tongues on the soundboard worked analogously to the notes on a piano.
Within the furniture realm, very few designs exist that integrate an instrument or sound component, much less allow for face-to-face interaction. In my research, I found no precedents fully integrating these considerations.
The development of Ubuntu relied on a constant dialogue between two and three-dimensional design; each iteration often informed and transformed the next. These iterations were in turn influenced by extensive secondary research on materials, precedents, and sound resonance attributes. Seemingly contradictory attributes and needs emerged from the consideration of form, function, materials, ergonomics, aesthetics, manufacturability, and sustainability.
A goal was set to ideate and render 100 concepts on the theme of sound resonating furniture using a Wacom® Cintiq® drawing tablet in order to explore a wide range of design possibilities. Concurrently, I explored a range of contextual environments and market demographics.
3D Material Explorations
While in the midst of two dimensional ideation, I also began constructing drums with a wide range of imported and domestic hardwoods, looking for a combination of hardwoods that would maximize the sound resonance capabilities and tonal quality. The hardwoods used included: Birch Plywood, Pine, Maple, Red Oak, White Oak, Black Walnut, Mahogany, African Pedra, African Padauk, African Bubinga, Bamboo, Bocote, and Tigre. Hardwoods of extreme density and linear grains produced the best overall sound quality; an electronic guitar tuner and sound decibel meter were used to test them. African Bubinga and Padauk hardwoods were selected for the drum component of the final piece both for their sound quality and pertinence to the history and drumming traditions in Africa.
3D Sketch Development
After reviewing the initial 100 concept drawings and evaluating the information collected from the drum form studies, my design direction was refined to a set of three concepts. I constructed a series of 1/10 scale models, each having slight structural modifications. I then created full-scale mockups of the three final designs in cardboard, theorized contextual environments, and ergonomic data.
Once the final design direction was chosen, fabrication started. An important consideration was to fully accentuate the use of exotic hardwoods. I decided to make use of molded plywood and bamboo veneer for the body form, giving this section a light visual weight and acting as a frame for the African Bubinga and Padauk drum. The base and seating were constructed out of two modular units, which allowed for compact shipping as well as easy assembly and storage by the end user. Lastly, the final piece was 100% wood and used no mechanical fasteners.
In the words of designer Charles Eames, “The details are not details. They make the design.” Considerations such as parting lines, edge and foot finishing treatments, sanding gradient, and the application of tongue oil were crucial considerations that made an impact on the visual aesthetic of the piece.
User testing occurred concurrently with the two dimensional and three dimensional development of the design, yet the most significant testing phase took place following completion of the final piece. Primary research was conducted by transporting the piece to a variety of locations throughout downtown Vancouver, Canada. This allowed users to freely interact with it. Locations included: The Vancouver Art Gallery, near the beach at the intersection of Davie and Denman, and Granville Island Public Market. Participants ranged in age and cultural background. Many of the participants and spectators commented on being initially drawn to the sound, form, and natural beauty of the hardwoods. One man said, “I think that this is the first two person instrument that I have ever seen.” The most recurring comment during the user-testing phase was in regard to the beauty and curious look of the African Padauk soundboard.
The most difficult aspect of this project was to address sustainability. Considering the looming threat of deforestation and continued emission of greenhouse gases, the use of exotic hardwoods posed a moral dilemma inherent to industrial design practice. I had attempted to embrace the cultural significance of the hardwoods to the African tongue drum. However, the project outcome may have adverse effects on our eco-system (via production, manufacturing and distribution) or be altogether impossible to produce. Which of these two points should hold precedence? In the creation of Ubuntu, I attempted to use excellent craftsmanship, high quality materials, and beautiful aesthetics to fully showcase the exotic hardwoods. In doing this, I intended to create a design with an inherent artifact quality; I wanted to make a design that would be passed down from generation to generation. So I beg the question; if this design lasts longer than it takes the trees with which it is constructed to regenerate; is this not a step toward sustainability?
Final Product: Reflection
Throughout my design education and research, one principle in particular seemed to repeatedly present itself: Human-centered design requires a designing with ethos as opposed to designing for. In addition, ensuring that a wide range of people could enjoy this design demanded an intuitive and seamless interaction with the piece in which no particular set of skills were required of the user. The overwhelmingly positive response to the design allowed me to consider it a successful beginning into the field of sound resonating furniture.
Taking an introspective and retrospective look at this project, I’ve found myself inspired to explore other possibilities within the field of sound resonating furniture. The potential ramifications of this idea are vast. The next phase of development will further explore the concept of interchangeable soundboards. Considering that the soundboard is, structurally, the weakest component on any given piece, it could be easily replaced if ever broken or damaged.
This design development would also be advantageous for the purposes of cleaning and storage. Finally, considering the fact that every soundboard has the ability to produce a distinctively different set of tones based on the arrangement of the notes, a user could potentially have a whole library of tones for one drum or piece of furniture. Additionally, I would like to monitor degradation of the hardwoods to estimate longevity of the different pieces and thus better inform my design process as I try to maximize the longevity of my design. I would also like to make the process cyclical, reinvesting profits into the harvesting of my own hardwoods, as a means to offset my consumption.
Making this piece, I had an idealistic vision of two people from opposite ends of the planet, having never met and potentially lacking the ability to speak the same language, coming together in a communal space to communicate and create as they interacted with Ubuntu. We live in a world of competing and complex perspectives, often neglecting to recognize the inherent beauty that lies in our differences. In essence, this project is about contrast and unity, about bringing together furniture and instrument, an old world craft and modern technologies, local and imported materials. Ubuntu united users, who celebrated life through the creation of sound.
- 1. Carrington, Dr. John F., & Ong, Walter. (Spring 1977). Oral Cultures and Oral Performances. New Literary History, 8(3), 411- 429.
- 2. Royal African Society. (1923). The Drum Language of West Africa. Oxford Journals: African Affairs XXIII, 226-236.
- 3. Shutte, Augustine. (1993). Philosophy for Africa. Rondebosch, South Africa: UCT Press.
- 4. Sidane, Jabu. (1994). Ubuntu and Nation Building. Pretoria: Ubuntu School of Philosophy.
- Fig 1. Russell, B. (2010).
- Fig 2. Bogorad, C. (2010).
- Fig 3. Bogorad, C. (2010).
- Fig 4. Bogorad, C (2010).
- Fig 5. Bogorad, C. (2010).