"Beauty" may not be the first buzzword that comes to mind when approaching contemporary design, but it's perhaps the most enduring, and ephemeral—from the days of antiquity to the present, beauty has long been a topic of consternation by philosophers and creative minds alike. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s latest design triennial, Beauty (through August 21) explores the complexity of that very topic head-on, with a multifaceted viewpoint that's rooted firmly in the present—and the potential future.
The bold choice of theme is coolly subversive, in light of the museum's previous triennials, which tackled ambitious topics at the intersection of social design, infrastructure, and service. "We thought the notion of beauty was sort of oddly edgy," says curator Ellen Lupton, who organized the show with assistant curator Andrea Lipps. "There’s a whole emphasis in the design world right now on design thinking, as well as innovation and technology and service design, systems versus objects; we’re all into that—and the show’s about that, too. Beauty is also a big tradition of this museum, which is historically rooted in the decorative arts."
The fifth edition of the museum's design triennial, Beauty features more than 250 works explored through seven thematic descriptors—extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative—and runs the gamut, from furniture and product design, to fashion and jewelry, crafted and 3D-printed objects, graphic posters, and even digital interfaces and speculative designs. "It seemed like a moment to celebrate the designer, and the sensuality and richness of design," says Lupton. "It became a very clear lens, because not all designers are interested in beauty; it isn't the only concern."
Far from preaching a singular standard of beauty, the alluring pieces on display pose alternative, and refreshingly diverse depictions that break wide open that elusive, age-old notion. A catalogue companion to the show, itself a distinctive object, designed by Kimberly Varella of Content Object Design Studio, collects each of the featured designers’ takes on the topic, many of them poetic musings: “Beauty is a fleeting dream of an object, thought, or moment,” says Dutch ceramicist Olivier van Herpt, whose 3D-printed vessels are on display. It’s certainly a fitting and beautiful thought.
Check out our walk-through of the exhibition above, with commentary from Lupton.