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The beauty in ugliness, the order in chaos

"East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet." – Rudyard Kipling, 1889.

When I call to mind the home I want to build some day – something I often do – I imagine it sitting on a large, coastal lot, looking west to the water and the light, walls the colour of a battered seashell, floors the colour of stone. A prairie girl who grew up to be a designer, my daydreams are filled with of broad, horizontal lines and sweeping views of sky, of quiet interrupted only by wind and rain.

A bit different than Mumbai, India, then, where I've just come back from. (Designers, trades, vendors, contractors – the whole community hibernates for December and early January. It's the only time to get away.) My friend Dana Johl and I travelled through India for 23 days – 14 on a tour of the north, and seven more exploring the southern state of Kerala.

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Now, I'm aware that there may be no greater cliché than the Western seeker who goes to India and returns with her mind blown, waxing ecstatic about the architecture and history, the colourful dress and oven-like heat, the awesome crush of people. How was it for me? Honestly, mind-blowing – for several of the goofy, ordinary reasons, and at least a couple I hope will interest you.

India asked significant questions of me as a designer, especially one working in the Canadian context. I've been back for two weeks and I don't yet have any clear answers to those questions. If it sounds as though I'm still working them out, it's because I am.

On day three of our trip, Dana and I found ourselves in the back seat of a diesel-spewing motorized rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, with our driver dodging traffic and taking us into the core of Varanasi. (Hindus regard the city, India's oldest and holiest, as a kind of border town between this world and the spirit world.) As the streets narrowed and everything bottlenecked, we jumped out and joined the wave of people heading to the River Ganges for evening prayer.

Mud saturated the scene – the buildings, the mounds of roadside garbage and the rogue cows munching on discarded plastic bottles. Everything, it seemed, wore a layer of scum, and the air seethed with incense, human rot, and smoke.

Overwhelmed by the scene, my mind, as if scrambling for a lifeboat, flew back to that clean Canadian house on the sea. My arms crossed over my stomach, I tried to make a list of its comforts and virtues: rectilinear space, integrated planes, natural finishes, smoothness, cleanliness, unity, coherence…

A Hindu funeral procession interrupted me. Men pushed their way through the crowd, a bamboo platform on their shoulders. On it was a body wrapped head to toe in lurid gold lamé, ropes of marigolds and red petals spilling over the edges. A woman dressed all in white followed the procession, wailing.

In Canada, I make my daily bread replacing ugly things with beautiful things. At least, that's what I think I'm doing. The quandary of Varanasi – and of my terrifying, gorgeous time there – is how one marks the difference between beauty and ugliness.

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This question in particular has been bugging me: In design, is there something inherently superior about unity, integration, and coherence – or do they merely give voice to a panicky wish for control?

Indiawas unquestionably alive. I wondered: Was my house on the sea?

It was late and we were arriving in Jaipur. I looked out the window of our rickety bus. The spotty fluorescent lights cast a glow on what seemed a post-apocalyptic streetscape: buildings of all heights blown apart, rebar flaring off into the night, concrete platforms jutting here and there, neon signs tilting and flashing. People on the street milled about, apparently completely at their ease.

My Canadian designer brain began to overheat. There were just too many planes, too many lines, too much intensity, too much colour. Could Jaipur really be without building standards? And the rest of India? And what about height restrictions? Sign bylaws? Where was the structure, the plan?

A Canadian baying for rules. Huh.

What, exactly, should be the principles of a designer? The Hippocratic Oath commands doctors to "do no harm," and a designer might find her basic ideals in a statement similarly simple: Make it efficient. Make it beautiful. Make it intuitive.

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It's the last bit that got me thinking: intuition. When I went to turn on the lights at my Jaipur hotel, I had to stand there, fiddling with a bank of switches until I ignited the one I wanted. It was enough to make me throw up my hands. Why? Because every decision I made in India – down to turning on a light – required so much energy, so much effort. There were too many options.

This may be the crux. An intuitive interior in the Western conception is one that accurately anticipates your needs. The correct light switch appears in the correct place, as if by magic, the moment you start feeling for it. It's effortless.

But might a space that's effortless just as easily become thoughtless? More to the point: If beautiful design assists Canadians in sleepwalking through their lives, how beautiful is it, exactly?

A loud bang from a passing truck yanked me to the hotel room. I looked up at elegant plaster arch over the door and listened the murmur of the electric fan diligently pushing air around the room. There were no easy answers, I thought. If ugliness is a riot of colour and noise, feeling and scent – what is beauty? And if chaos is too many lines not lining up, what is order?

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