WE NEED TO TALK
In our global and multidisciplinary design discourse, there is a word that very few dare to utter aloud. It refers to the superficial, the attention-seeking, the distracting, the decorative, or even the useless, or so we are set to believe. These values have no place in modern Western society, in which the flattened legacy of modernism is still very much alive. What we are referring to is beauty.
Although we avoid speaking about beauty in design, we instinctively know that it refers to something fundamental. Most theories about beauty, despite their mutual differences, connect the experience of the phenomenon with a distinctive type of unmediated and pure pleasure or enjoyment, caused by a visual experience. Although this type of ‘liking’ is a completely separate neurological process than ‘needing’, both functions are vital to our being. Already at the dawn of our Western civilization, Plato proclaimed beauty as one of the three pillars of human society, together with truth and the good. But also in modern-day research, scientists confirm that a general poverty of aesthetic stimuli may cause passivity and reduced intellectual capacity. We as people recognize beauty as important to both our individual and collective well-being, and this is part of a growing body of knowledge and expertise among scientists, historians, policymakers, and above all planners and designers. Why, then, is beauty off-limits in critical discourse about design?
In her article, “Beauty and critical art: is beauty at odds with critical–political engagement?’” Marina-Alina Asavei points to an important reason as to why beauty is silenced. Beautiful things may distract our attention from injustice, pain, moral crimes, and sufferance, or to the close reader, from ‘what is really going on in the world’. The attitude that Asavei describes could be named kalliphobia, following Arthur Danto, or beauty phobia. The typical argument goes, “beauty, by preoccupying our attention, makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just.”
Asavei looks at the topic through the lens of modern art, but she also points to a plausible reason why beauty is avoided in today’s design discourse. Since the start of the 21st century, designers have claimed a seat at the table in discussions about topics such as inclusivity and the climate crisis. But as design has become more socially and politically engaged, beauty has been blatantly ignored as a decisive driver to pull us back into harmony with nature and with each other. This ignorance is visible on the platforms that facilitate and shape the Dutch design discourse—home to our practices. In 2009, in an essay pointing to the jury report of the Rotterdam Design Prize, the director of Premsela, the former Dutch platform for design and fashion, expressed his concern about the neglected relationship between beauty and design in Dutch design critique: “The jury carefully set out its selection criteria in its report: vision, authorship, execution, context and international relevance. (..) Strikingly, any association with the aesthetic quality of a design – its beauty – is avoided. (..) The jury members seem to have found it difficult to give beauty a clear place in their reasoning. They are not alone: beauty has become a source of discomfort for most design professionals.” Nowadays, platforms such as Dutch Design Week, the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam and The New Institute are still leaning away from the visual. They increasingly focus on design-by-research trajectories that are driven by a singular understanding of how design can be a force of good.
Beauty as a goal
Can beauty be functional and beneficial in the context of current day society? The one place within the contemporary design realm where this thought is publicly entertained is fashion, a field that is—just as beauty—often still dismissed as frivolous and irrelevant. In fashion, we see literal quests to contain beauty, such as the development of bio-scientific iridescent sequins, for which London-based designer Elissa Brunato refused to sacrifice beauty while creating sustainable materials. Fashion also celebrates designers that recognize beauty as a human need, such as Helen Storey, who became the first designer in residence in Za’atari, the largest camp for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, with her project Dress for our Time.
In other fields of design, beauty is rarely recognized in such a way. This is most evident in the field of architecture, in which function, efficiency, and also sustainability became leading paradigms. Its supposed supremacy, logic and moral power forever mined the possibility of thinking about beauty as the ultimate goal of architectural production, but there are other factors why beauty might be silenced. London-based architect and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman recently argued in a conversation with Dezeen that a lack of diversity in the field of architecture and design causes a lack of discussion about beauty. Furman describes his work as ‘a visual and cultural pursuit which is highly aesthetical’. Works such as Pasteechio and The Royal Family are dismissed as ‘loud’ and ‘attention-seeking’ by some, but can be interpreted as statements that beauty is a crucial part of our identity and of our multi-cultural and multi-faceted contemporary visual culture.
From certainty to doubt
The work of Furman brings us to another important reason why we do not want to talk about beauty: the fear of being judged. In ancient Greece, beauty ideals were clearly defined in terms of order, symmetry, and definiteness. There was a common understanding of what is beautiful. Later, Christianity shaped and defined Western society’s understanding of beauty and how we experience it. But in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant’s distinction between free beauty and dependent beauty turned beauty into a topic of discussion, by transforming it from an agreed goal or public principle—to which a whole population could aspire—to a subjective and personal concern. Free beauty is grounded in a subject's aesthetic pleasure. Freely beautiful objects have no intrinsic meaning. According to Kant, this kind of beauty can only be found in nature. Dependent beauty, on the other hand, is a beauty that gives us intellectual pleasure. Dependently beautiful objects are about something, represent an idea, and therefore have an intrinsic meaning of ‘what the thing has to be’. Their beauty comes from the pleasure we experience when the idea is executed or materialized in a fully optimized manner, when idea and form collide. OMA’s programmatic design approach is a fitting example here. Buildings such as De Rotterdam and The Shenzhen Stock Exchange consider program and form as the guiding principles to reach a certain essence. It is best described by the CTBUH: "De Rotterdam is an exercise in formal interpretation […]. The nighttime twinkling of the lights indicating different programs throughout the day lends dynamism and contributes to the humanization of the monoliths."
Kant’s theory obviously initiated a new discussion about beauty, as the (visual) experience of an object is highly personal. The understanding of beauty shifted from certainty to doubt, revealing differences instead of connections between people. While Kant freed us from aesthetic conventions and somehow democratized beauty, these fluctuating ideas started to divide instead of unite. Not only did Kant’s theory initiate heated debates about whether or not beauty has a function or should be functional, it also generated other complications. Argentinian semiotician Walter Mignolo, currently a key contributor to the discourse on decolonizing aesthetics, suggests that Kant’s theory marked the colonization, or Westernization, of aesthetics. According to Mignolo, Kant’s work established European standards, which were then projected universally.
In the 19th century, a powerful view developed that a beautiful object is that object which has no use or function. Especially in the fine arts, non-functional works were appreciated for their own sake, for aesthetic pleasure, l’art pour l’art. Uselessness started to become central to the modern concept of art and beauty and set the precedent for today’s unreasonable fear of beauty. With the rise of modernism in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, function and economic benefits were favored over pleasure and enjoyment - and thus over beauty - in design. Technological change occurred at a more rapid rate than during any equivalent period of time, bringing amongst others powered flight, telephones, domestic electricity supply, and motor cars, steel-framed construction and reinforced concrete, and thus a variety of opportunities for economic development and growth of our man-made world. This industrialization induced a faster pace in life in general and therefore created a growing need for efficiency. According to the drivers of the modernist movement, these values were an antidote to the excessive, ‘useless’ and distracting decoration of the late 19th century, and allowed designers to return to basics of proportion and abstract form.
The Modernist Movement is complex, multilateral, and paradoxical, and its effect cannot be reduced to a simple description. However, it certainly had and still has an impact on our perception of beauty. Modernism could be considered as an aesthetic introspection, but it can also be recognized as the start of a de-humanization of design, and the start of the demise of beauty. In his publication ‘Beauty - a short history’, Alan Powers, professor of architecture and cultural History and author of several publications on visual culture, argues that the idea that beauty simply comes from the effective and economical translation of function into form is attractive, but problematic in action. This is clearly visible in mediocre modern architecture which has been, with reason, criticized frequently. The original modernist ideas that modern architecture can combine a world of facts and functions with another of imagination were misunderstood as economical functionalism that mandated the housing of as many people as efficiently possible. As a result, vast urban areas were overrun with giant building blocks of psychotic sameness that, in many cities, we still endure today. By excluding so much architectural expression, modernism has arguably made it more difficult for many people to appreciate and understand architecture.
A transformative tool
Considering the above, some pivotal questions arise. Can and may design be functional, socially engaged, and beautiful at the same time? Can beauty be a strategy in design? And even if beauty merely results in pleasure, is it justifiable to make beauty a topic of our conversation about design?
In conversations leading up to this article, several independent critics did note that, although beauty is not part of the design discourse, it immensely increased its presence in the last years. Architecture historian Stephan Petermann describes that the alignment of aesthetics—the same coffee bars all over the place, the rise of the color beige—is a longing for a singular understanding of beauty, facilitated by Pinterest and Instagram. This is also clearly visible on international design fairs such as Maison et Objet or Design Miami, where it is difficult to distinguish one designer from another, as pastel, beige and chunky shapes seems to have become the norm. Design writer Elsbeth Grievink notices that she sees a vast amount of designers consider beauty as an important design criterium, however mostly for commercial reasons. Therefore critics remain suspicious about beauty. Saskia Van Stein, head of the Critical Inquiry Lab of the Design Academy Eindhoven states: "Where beauty was once anchored in our relationship to nature, it has become synonymous with consumerism and might have been marginalized by that narrow-minded interpretation.”
It is not only logical but also urgent to re-enter into the conversation about beauty. As W.R. Lethaby stated, everyday beauty is a saving grace in difficult times. In the light of the Covid-19 crisis, his point becomes evident. But more importantly, in the background of it all, the climate crisis is still in full effect. Contemporary design that aspires to play a role in solving the environmental crisis in which we find ourselves in still tends to emphasize a ‘utilitarian’ perspective. It misses opportunities to transform our idea of sustainability from a set of rules that feel distant and obligatory, to a more holistic and human concept that truly connects us with our surroundings. Beauty was once anchored in our relationship to nature. Nowadays, a conservative sustainability fetishism is taking us hostage in a world where beauty is off-limits. The word ‘sustainable’ is exploited and abused, as it only refers to production methods or materials that can be reused or recycled. Products designed with this vision in mind are often flimsy, temporary, unnecessary frugal and bland. If things are made to last—durable, timeless, solid, indestructible, beautiful and culturally rooted—they will be treasured, valued, and taken care of. Timeless objects, such as the archaic and plain concrete work of David Umemoto, the architecture of Valerio Olgiati or the monumental jewelry pieces by Tools for Progress, will live long after we have passed away. The purpose of this essay, then, is to urge for a new framework with a more timeless, resilient and regenerative understanding of sustainability.
One thing is clear: our understanding of beauty has never been a static topic, and today it still isn’t. The conversation has always been in flux, moving between certainty and doubt, between the rational understanding of beauty and the search to boil down the essence into formulae and models for application; and between the romantic understanding based on personal experience and insight that is not open to explanation or proof. In today’s world, one may conclude that doubt and questioning are actually healthy, as certainty can encourage complacency and dogmatism. If we agree to disagree about beauty, can we at least keep the conversation on the table? Can we open up our discourse to those questioning the conventional aesthetic norms to try and find new insights? And can we agree to include terms such as pleasure, healing, generosity, and emotion in the conversation?
Unlike the commonsensical understanding of beauty in traditional aesthetic theory as distanced, useless, immediately eye-catching, and pleasing at sight, contextually and conceptually informed beauty is purposeful and its impacts are detected in our responses to it. Beauty is always meaningful. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI was quoted in the article ‘Aesthetic Awakening’, a pledge for beauty:
“The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation – if not beauty? ”
The pope has a point. Beauty was and always is part of the conversation. It is far too easy to condemn it, be afraid of it, not consider it important, and silence it. Beauty is still considered a dangerous business. Artists, architects, planners, and designers are often shy about evoking it, as if it would somehow block the forcefulness of their message. But rather than shaming them for pursuing beauty, we should encourage them to do so, and moreover celebrate them for it. Beauty is in fact a powerful tool to forge meaningful and long-lasting relationships between objects and their owners. This particular power inherent to beauty is positive and therefore transformative. It is wonderfully expressed by Hilde Bouchez in her book ‘A Wild Thing’: “I became certain that beauty and love are synonymous on some level, and that the function of the artist, poet, dancer or designer is to understand and encapsulate this transcendent love and beauty.”
Therefore, it is urgent to liberate beauty from its hostage situation. As this essay states, the problem is not with beauty itself, but with what it is taken to be, and by who. It is time to reinstate beauty as a valuable parameter for critique. Only then can we review and challenge its significant position and function in design. Not by trying to define it, but by cultivating it and exploring what beauty entails rather than suppressing the conversation about it.
by Cédric Van Parys and Esther Muñoz Grootveld
Cédric Van Parys
Cédric Van Parys (Belgium, 1989) is an architect, researcher and artist, and founder of Office CCXD, a Rotterdam based practice operating on the crossroad of architecture and the visual arts. He is also the co-founder of Tools for Progress, a laboratory experimenting with objects and spatial assemblages.
Esther Muñoz Grootveld
Esther Muñoz Grootveld (The Netherlands, 1983) is a cultural producer, project manager, and strategic consultant specialized in art, design, and fashion. She is the Head of Program at State of Fashion and the creative lead for De Wasserij, a hub for innovative fashion talent in Rotterdam