In Defense Of “Beautiful” Design

Beauty is a dirty word in design nowadays. The Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial show proves it’s still relevant–though not in the way you think.

In a design world that revolves around problem-solving, “beauty” can seem like a dirty word. It implies vapidness, unnecessary ornament, empty aesthetics and even ephemerality–traits that feel suspect to celebrate.


Yet often overlooked in the classic debate between form and function is the fact that beauty has its own function, and it’s an important one. As designers know better than most, people really do judge a book by its cover. To suggest that beauty is irrelevant is to ignore a fundamental fact of human psychology. And while a narrow perception of beauty can limit innovation, individual tastes, preferences and perceptions of pleasure can actually fuel it. In other words, if your only constraint is your own definition of beauty, you can create all kinds of new and inventive things.

The Haas Brothers (California, USA, founded 2010): Nikolai Haas (American, b. 1984) and Simon Haas (American, b. 1984) with The Haas Sisters of Monkeybiz (Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, South Africa.); Al-Gorilla, Eye-sik Newton, Neil Tongue, Bill Nyeland, Isle Be Back, and Fungulliver, from the Afreaks series, 2015; Glass beads, wire, wood, mixed fiber stuffing, and cast bronze. Monkeybiz is a nonprofit income-generating bead project founded in 2000.Joe Kramm / R & Company

For proof of that, look no further than Beauty, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s design Triennial show. The sprawling split-level exhibition covers 63 designers and 250 works that demonstrate the delightful, experiential, strange, and exciting things that can be created when our concept of beauty is broadened.

The show comes at a time when a new concept of beauty can be seen in popular culture–such as plus-size issue of Sports Illustrated or the new Barbie body types–as well as in art. When sourcing pieces for the show, co-curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps looked for works that looked beyond pleasure and perfection, and instead exemplified transgression, surprise and change. “We wanted people who are really challenging the norms of beauty, who are on the edge or transgressing or offering other perspectives about youth and aging,” Lupton says.

Photo: Jeroen W. Mantel

One such designer is Pepe Heykoop, a Dutch furniture designer whose Skin Collection merges secondhand furniture with leather scraps leftover from the manufacturing process. As a result, the pieces are rough and malformed, giving off a sort of monster aesthetic. But its the act of experimentation and of recycling materials, and the questions that it raises that makes it beautiful, argues Lupton. “It’s not all pretty stuff but an inquiry into form,” she says. “Form as an end in itself, form as a discourse, not in service of something.”

Not far from Heykoops lamp, an elegant, jet black dress by British fashion designer Gareth Pugh stands, looking like it’s made of silky black fur and shiny feathers. It’s not until you’re up close that you see its made entirely of plastic drinking straws. Pugh, a master illusionist, is no stranger to creating glamorous garments out of the most mundane materials: For his Fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection, he fashioned a billowing ball gown and matching hat from trash bags.

If this new concept of beauty includes the plastic, disposable goods we shove into drawers and under sinks, it also incorporates something else we’d rather not expose: old age. Lupton points to Israeli artist Noa Zilberman’s Wrinkles jewelry collection as a direct commentary on beauty as change: The slender gold pieces that make up the collection, designed to follow the grooves and creases on Zilberman’s face just after the birth of her first son, accentuate the wearers wrinkles rather than hide them.

Photo by Eddo Hartmann © Terhi Tolvanen

Similarly, Terhi Tolvanen’s sculptural, nature-inspired brooches are beautiful precisely because they look ancient, craggy, and irregular. The Singaporean designer Hans Tan, meanwhile, takes traditional porcelain Chinese vases, covers it with silicon to make a new pattern, then sandblasts it. The resulting decoration is a blend of old and new. “He’s creating something new out of something that already exists,” says Lupton. “He’s honoring, but also obliterating.”

Ultimately, the wide variety of pieces in the show suggests not only that beauty is relevant to design, but that it’s not a limitation. Just the opposite: Rather than being a fixed quality or thing, beauty is a reaction in viewers. It celebrates difference, makes us curious, broadens our vision and pushes us to new places.

Beauty–Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial is on view through August 21, 2016.

All Images: courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.