The development of this thesis began years ago. In my work as a business anthropologist, I noticed a growing hype regarding authenticity as international brands were increasingly using it as a conceptual marketing theme or an innovation guideline. Intrigued by the emerging relevance of the concept, I gradually formed a series of questions that were later on addressed in this thesis: Why has authenticity become such a culturally relevant, popular concept around the world? How has it been addressed in theory? How is it represented and articulated in terms of design aesthetics?
To answer these questions, I adopted an inter-disciplinary approach designed to explore the meaning of authenticity in a broader sense – contextually, pragmatically, and regarding theory. contextually, theoretically, and pragmatically –via design. Authenticity has been addressed in academic theory since antiquity, but the discourse has changed over time. Objective ideas of origin and morality as the anchors of authenticity were prominent in cultural theory and philosophy until the mid-20th century, while the humanities have been increasingly discrediting the term, understanding it as a skewed reflection of power relations since. Authenticity has been re-framed as a contested, highly subjective interpretation.
In design aesthetics however, following intensifying globalization and urbanization worldwide, authenticity has become a widely used source of inspiration for material and visual production. Unlike the subjectivity emphasized in contemporary theorizing of authenticity, design tends to draw on seemingly objective meanings of authenticity, and consequently on specific, pre-defined aesthetic guidelines. Those are meant to express familiar, desired concepts as tradition, craft, and simplicity that are understood as “authentic” within a modern, urban context. I posit that understanding authenticity in theory and design practice are not contradictory and can be viewed as a representation continuum; theory addresses authenticity as a contextual and abstract notion, while design represents its prevalent perceptions, which change in line with macro dynamics (as globalization and identity politics).
The next stage focused on a theoretical and visual exploration of the relation between authenticity, globalization, food, and design. As a basic element in everyday life and a rich, symbolic form of cultural expression, exploring the way authenticity has been negotiated via food-related design aesthetics proved quite revealing. Borrowing from Kozinets’ idea of “Netnography” (Internet-based ethnography), I gathered food-related images online that were referenced as authentic around the world, and analyzed their aesthetics using semiotic principles. As the images were all designed, I believe their aesthetic features represent prevalent perceptions of authenticity, as well as new, re-interpreted ones, such as hybridity and hyperrealism, which are indicative of emerging cultural meanings. As globalization intensifies, I argue that the cultural meaning of authenticity is being flexed. As a result, its design expressions embody not only the classic ideas of origin and morality, but also their re-imagination in a post-modern, increasingly fused, globalized context.