Why beauty? Beauty has become a bad word in today’s design world. Go to Art Basel or Design Miami, and the words that designers aspire towards in their creations are “edgy” and unusual. But mere beauty? That doesn’t seem to be de rigueur any more. Edgy is to beauty what rap is to melody.
As someone who seeks and sees beauty in the random walk of life and is constantly amazed by the ridiculous amount of pleasure it offers, I question this trend. Sure, a Maarten Baas bookshelf delights by the sheer surprise of its creation, as do Jeff Miller’s chairs. But they are not what I would call beautiful. By this, I don’t mean beauty in the Bollywood or Fashion Week sense.
I mean beauty as in the purity of a gesture—the simple stroke of a Chinese calligrapher’s paintbrush. Beauty as it emerges straight from a person’s soul—the opening note of a Pandit Jasraj concert, or Maria Callas’ high notes when she became Elvira in I Puritani for the first time. Beauty is authenticity without a trace of self-consciousness: A village maiden painstakingly creating an intricate rangoli or kolam knowing full well that it will be erased in a matter of hours by wind and feet. Beauty is the simplicity of a bento-box lunch or the tortured construct of a bonsai. Beauty is the ephemeral stability of a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. Beauty is fascinating, contradictory, an endless search, somewhat unknowable and difficult to put into words. It is different things to different people. But above all, it arouses emotion. It nourishes the soul.
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It was Prophet Mohammed who said that if he had two loaves of bread, he would sell one to nourish his soul. Now, you can question the necessity of nourishing the soul, but I feel that the time we are engrossed in beauty, art and science are the moments when we are truly alive. To get lost in the swirling colours of a painting or the cadences of a verse is to transcend the mundane.
There are many types of beauty. There is the riotous, extroverted beauty of Rajasthan. Then there is the subtle, verdant beauty of Kerala. There is beauty in poetry. Now I am not one for poetry, but I like Wordsworth’s definition of it. Poetry, he said, is “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Think about that. The words themselves have such repose only a poet could have come up with them. Well, if poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, then beauty is the search for unity in variety. Not my words; Coleridge’s. It’s true. Beauty is each human’s need to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. Aesthetic gestures, be they a simple flower arrangement or a grand landscape design, are all about controlling our environment; seeking unity in multiplicity. Science does this; as does the finest of arts.
The scientific approach to beauty, however, will question its purpose. What evolutionary purpose does beauty and the creation of it serve? After all, food and hunger are essential for life; fight or flight is the need to survive; sex is essential for the procreation of the human species. But beauty? What purpose would, say, a Darwin have for beauty?
My answer to that is that Darwin is the wrong person to ask about beauty. Beauty isn’t about survival of a species; it is not about the evolution of life. It is about how to live an examined life; about being in the present moment; about experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” or optimal experience.
In today’s design world, beauty has become antiquated. In our quest for sensory experiences, we seek to be surprised above all else. This creates a different sort of tension in a designer. If the object of your creation is to surprise people, then your art will be reactionary. It is like Andres Serrano’s controversial but award-winning photograph, Piss Christ, in which the artist submerged a photograph of Christ on the cross in his own urine. The photograph surprised viewers for sure. But beautiful? Hardly.
If the purpose of design is to surprise, indeed shock, then it has no use for beauty. Beauty, no matter which culture or age it belongs to, involves a certain symmetry and balance. It cannot compete with the jagged edges of today’s ‘it’ chair or bookshelf. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on the aged beauty of a well-worn brass mortar and pestle handed down through the generations.
There are compromises, of course. One way is to somehow fuse timeless beauty with today’s aesthetic edge. This is incredibly difficult to do. Many designers try; very few succeed. Two firms that have succeeded in my view are Art d’Inox and Magppie Design. They have taken the quintessentially Indian stainless steel and imbued it with a design punch that is less about making a statement and more about functional utility. They have married an Indian aesthetic with a Western edge and, in the process, created objects that are quite beautiful. Why beauty? Because, without it, any object becomes meaningless.
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