If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, the curators of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum faced a daunting task when they chose beauty for the latest design triennial’s theme. Luckily, the museum managed to craft an exquisite survey, displaying an array of design as well as challenging our definitions of beauty.
We’re welcomed into a world of beauty in a very expected way: an extravagant Giambattista Valli gown, complete with a mille-feuille skirt rendered in shades of salmon, rose, and carnation. Almost cartoonish in its embodiment of traditional standards of pulchritude, the outfit’s excess and resplendence prepare us for more wildly abstract interpretations of beauty throughout the exhibition.
The show is organized around different categories of beauty, from the aesthetically driven, with groupings like “Extravagant” and “Intricate,” to the more sociological (“Transgressive”) and material-based (“Elemental”). The works are diverse in their scale, medium, material, and, quite importantly, the ethnicity of their makers, showcasing a global experience and understanding of beauty. From South African knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s fashions inspired by the Xhosa to the Haas brothers’ collaboration with craftswomen from the Khayelitsha township in South Africa, usually underrepresented forms of beauty (not to mention artists) play prominently in the show.
Continuing the creation of this “rainbow of experience,” as curator Ellen Lupton described during the press preview, sight is not the only faculty engaged with here. A spectacular piece commissioned for the show, “Scent: The Beauty of Decay” by Sissel Tolaas, looks like nothing more than a great white wall upon first viewing. But the installation artist concocted several artificial scents through microencapsulation that the wall houses, all inspired by the various aromas wafting through Central Park. It’s the only piece you’re allowed to touch in the exhibit — a quick rub on different spots on the wall activates the scents, bringing you pine, wood, dirt, pretzels, and a melange of other immersive aromas that hit you right in the amygdala. Think Willy Wonka’s edible wallpaper, except I wouldn’t recommend licking it.
Beauty is, in some way, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages … a beautiful object must always follow certain rules. A beautiful nose shouldn’t be longer than that or shorter than that, on the contrary, an ugly nose can be as long as the one of Pinocchio, or as big as the trunk of an elephant, or like the beak of an eagle, and so ugliness is unpredictable, and offers an infinite range of possibility. Beauty is finite, ugliness is infinite like god.
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In thinking about this dichotomy, the interesting thing about this exhibition is the way it twists beauty and ugliness, not exactly neutralizing those distinct positions, but challenging the binary and creating a broader aesthetic spectrum to consider. Just the way anti-fashion is still classified as fashion, ugliness can be captivating and interesting, giving a sense of satisfaction to the viewer, and thus becoming beautiful, to a degree. Pepe Heykoop’s “Mirror Chair,” a throne wrapped in scraps of leather, for example, is haunting and grotesque, but its echoing of classic furniture design, as well as the round mirror on the back that situates the viewer’s reflection amidst the chaotic shreds, relay a sense of beauty all of their own. The work also shows the transformative nature of beauty and defies its immutability by changing our perception of the chair depending on our vantage point; from behind, the object is wild and slightly abhorrent, but from the front we see our image and the background reflected.
Something similar happens in Tuomas Markunpoika’s “Cabinet,” from his Engineering Temporality Series. A quirky and charming metal lattice wardrobe, it looks like something from Anthropologie’s furniture collection. Once we learn more about the inspiration and process, however, our view begins to shift. Exploring loss and memory ignited by his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, he sculpted steel around a wooden cabinet and then burned it, leaving a hollow shell, an indexical ghost of its signified. The gravity and sadness can cloud our view of what’s beautiful, or at least cause us to juggle disparate and sometimes contradictory reactions to the same piece. It’s a beautiful sculpture with a haunting message.
In culling alluring objects from around the world, the Beauty triennial is a veritable pirate’s booty of contemporary design. From jewelry by the likes of Hemmerle and Delfina Delettrez (“a first for the Cooper Hewitt,” according to Lupton, referring to the museum’s display of jewelry) to 3D-printed glass (a first of its kind), the show takes us on an aesthetic romp traversing traditional Western standards of beauty, to innovative designs that we may not have conceived as beautiful were they not presented to us that way.
Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial continues at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2 E 91st St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 21.