Beauty: Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial

New York

12 February 2016

“What Elastic is doing right now perfectly encapsulates in a few short minutes what these shows are. Whether it is Masters of Sex, where you get this payload of erotic innuendo with each shot, or True Detective, which of course is all dark and moody.”

Andrea Lipps, an assistant curator at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, is not necessarily an American television show enthusiast. Her interest in the title sequences of American television shows, in particular those devised by Santa Monica-based design studio Elastic, stems instead from her co-curation of the fifth iteration of the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial. Centring upon the theme of beauty, the exhibition features more than 60 designers whose work, in various ways, explores concepts of beauty. The opening sequence to True Detective is one of the exhibits.

As True Detective’s inclusion would suggest, the exhibits that feature in Beauty are diverse, ranging from conventionally beautiful pieces by an array of celebrated designers such as Industrial Facility, Michael Anastassiades, and Formafantasma, to more provocative expressions of beauty that explore themes of androgyny, antiform, and the grotesque.

It is the subjective nature of the theme that informed this diversity within the exhibition. “Certainly we were a bit intimidated by approaching the theme of beauty,” says Lipps. “The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is absolutely true. It absolutely is subjective.” In response to this, the exhibits were initially put forth by a scattered group of international curators rather than a single curatorial team. Such a democratic approach to curation was opted for as a means “really broaden and enrich our own perspectives," explains Lipps, who organised the exhibition alongside Cooper Hewitt senior curator Ellen Lupton. “It also helped us identify work by designers that otherwise we may not have been aware of.”

The exhibition is presented according to seven themes: Extravagant, Intricate, Ethereal, Transgressive, Emergent, Elemental, and Transformative. “The themes arose out of the work itself,” says Lipps. “We identified seven lenses of beauty that really recognise and celebrate the fact that everyone has their own standards and realms of attraction: everyone is attracted to different colours, different patterns, different forms.”

Whereas the Extravagant theme explores the use of rich materials to create a sense of luxury and glamour – featuring hairstyles conceived by British hair stylist Guido Palau and a sumptuous, silk taffeta couture gown designed by Italian designer Giambattista Valli – the Intricate section of the exhibition examines pieces rendered beautiful on account of their intricate craftsmanship, with pieces from fashion designer Mary Katrantzou and design practice Studio Job. Objects included in the Ethereal section of the exhibition explore the use of ephemeral materials or short-lived effects, while the Transgressive section examines the work of designers that challenge normative standards of beauty, gender, genre or behaviour.

Although billed as a design triennial, it is not surprising that fashion, an industry known for it preoccupation with constructions of beauty, features prominently in the exhibition. Works from fashion designers Iris van Herpen, Mary Katrantzou and Gareth Pugh, as well as pieces by Japanese milliner and jewellery designer Maiko Takeda, are littered throughout. “Thinking around beauty, beauty on the body is something that very naturally came out of the theme,” says Lipps. “Certainly you see more fashion in an exhibition like this compared to previous triennials.”

Of late there has been a renewed interest in deconstructing concepts of beauty in a design context. In March 2015 The Biennale Internationale Design in Saint-Étienne, France centred its entire programme around Experiences of Beauty. While Industrial Facility investigated the fluid and changing nature of beauty in its curation of Beauty as Unfinished Business, an exhibition comprising 35 objects by various designers, Dutch artist Bart Hess (in a similar vein to the Transgressive section of Cooper Hewitt's Beauty), explored beauty and the grotesque in the curation of the exhibition Vous avez dit bizarre?

It is the subjective and multi-layered nature of beauty that afforded the Biennale Internationale Design, and now the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, their intrigue. Rather than attempt to offer a concrete definition of beauty, the Cooper Hewitt exhibition presents varying interpretations of the theme, and the rich diversity of what has been chosen provokes viewers to question their own predetermined expectations. “As a visitor walking through the exhibition, you could be surprised about certain notions of beauty. But what is great about that is that it starts a dialogue among ourselves about what exactly defines beauty,” says Lipps. “It is such a nebulous term. In the exhibition catalogue we asked all the designers to define beauty. It is difficult. People have a difficult time defining what it is.”