Along with business partner Jessica Walsh, Sagmeister has just opened an ambitious interactive exhibition on the topic of beauty at the Museum Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK). The show utilises most of the MAK’s Italianising 19th-century building – the main hall and basement spaces, and three rooms within the general collections – and even interjects, on occasion, into the permanent collection. Beauty is a follow-up of sorts to Sagmeister & Walsh's travelling The Happy Show, which made a stop at MAK in 2015. “After we worked on The Happy Show,” says Sagmeister, “I promised myself never to do a giant subject like that again.”
Beauty, of course, is just another such subject. The multiple lenses through which Sagmeister & Walsh attempt to tackle the topic – historical, scientific, philosophical, to name a few – make for a phenomenally diverse show: you will learn about the constancy of Alzheimer patients’ aesthetic preferences, airline safety manuals, and peacocks, all within the first half hour of wandering around the display. But the pit-stop nature of its reflections – “Plato thought of beauty as a moral value,” reads a wall text; “Ethics = Aesthetics,” reads another (that's Ludwig Wittgenstein, don't you know) – means that much of what is rich, complex, and interesting about the history and philosophy of beauty gets lost, because it is so heavily decontextualised and "snippetified".
Once you begin to let the wealth of references and disparate notions of beauty wash over you, however, it soon becomes clear that Sagmeister & Walsh have a very specific bone to pick regarding beauty in the 21st century. In short, they are lamenting its disappearance from contemporary design discourse. One of the first exhibits in the MAK’s main columned hall is a visual representation of the dwindling appearance of the word “beauty” in printed books published between the year 1800 and 2000 – or those books from the period digitised by Google, anyway. The steepest drops are seen around the years 1920 and 1940, something Sagmeister & Walsh use as a prompt to take “the Modernists” to task. The upheaval of the two World Wars, and the ways in which they threw humanist culture (to which “beauty” was key) into crisis – Theodor Adorno declared, in 1949, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – passes with surprisingly few remarks.
Instead, a momentous bad object emerges in the form of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Adolf Loos. Sagmeister & Walsh set out Loos’ arguments on ornament and efficiency from ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1929), and present Le Corbusier’s “catastrophic” 1922-25 Plan Voisin for a central Parisian CBD in horrified tones. They point out that the Auschwitz barracks were in fact designed by Bauhaus alumnus Fritz Ertl – “Functionalism's ultimate screw-you to humanity,” reads the exhibition guide – and even crack a joke about megalomaniac Modernists: “Q: What’s the difference between God and Le Corbusier? A: God does not think he’s Le Corbusier. (But then, of course, God is not a Modernist)”. Such posturing is meant to feel refreshing, I think, but comes across as a little staid – after all, we've been bashing "the Modernists" since the 1980s at least. More importantly, Sagmeister & Walsh are missing the mark here.
Sagmeister admits as much when I speak to him. “We can’t blame Mies and Le Corbusier for everything,” he says. “These were unbelievably smart people who had really new ideas. But where we could put some blame is the second and particularly third generation of designers that came afterwards, who reiterated those ideas without questioning them.” What animates Sagmeister & Walsh in Beauty, then, is not so much their interest in beauty per se, as it is their love of good design. Good design, admits Sagmeister, can encompass the wilfully ugly, garish, and otherwise eye-catching – as long as there is intention, thought, and care behind it. There are plenty of examples of this type of work in the show, from Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s decorated industrial chimneys (you’d be hard pressed to describe these as beautiful) to Virgin Atlantic’s jazzy 2013 airline safety video. The latter, I would argue, caught people’s attention not because it was “beautiful,” as Sagmeister & Walsh claim, but because it features sexy dancing and chirpy, good-looking people. Google it – you’ll know what I mean.
In developing Beauty, Sagmeister & Walsh worked with the cognitive psychologist Helmut Leder as consultant – Leder runs a focus group on “Perceptual Aesthetics” at the University of Vienna. In the segment of the exhibition dedicated to sensorial experience of beauty, this scientific emphasis is especially felt. “We behave differently, and how we see the people around us changes depending change with how beautiful the environment around us is,” says Sagmeister. Some exhibits in Beauty illustrate this, such as Diller Renfro + Scofidio, James Corner Field Operations, and Piet Oudolf’s design for New York’s High Line, which Sagmeister & Walsh note has not had a single serious criminal incident since opening in 2009. (Although it’s up for debate whether this is solely because of the beauty of its design, or in large part down to the heavy gentrification of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District – the neighbourhoods through which the High Line passes – in the past 15 years.)
Other exhibits seem to illustrate how ludicrous attempts at scientific measurement of beauty can be. The so-called Sensory Room, for instance, reproduces the sensorial experiences that surveys have found most people consider the most pleasant. The result is an enclosed, foggy space, in which the colours of the sunset are diffused (“surveys have shown that […] the colours of the sunset are most popular”), in which the sound of croaking Malaysian tree frogs is played (they “are liked best”) and where fumes of citrus scent are continuously pumped in (it’s the “most favoured”). The result is faintly nauseating and I think that’s the point. “Are these surveys correct?” ask Sagmeister & Walsh in the exhibition guide. “Is this experience beautiful? And: do you feel better?” This is when Beauty yields the most interesting and thought-provoking results: when the certainties of stats and surveys are shown to be arbitrary at best, and at worst, absurd.
Elsewhere, Sagmeister & Walsh embrace stats and surveys as a tool for engagement. Throughout the show, visitors can use paper coins to vote for things such as their favourite colour, shape and landscape, and see how their taste sits in relation to other visitors' where the coins are collected at the back of the display boards. These opinion polls recreate polls published on Sagmeister & Walsh's Instagram feed leading up to the project – they are also reproduced in the exhibition catalogue – and further reinforce the sense that statistics, polls, and surveys are extraordinarily blunt instruments for measuring aesthetics.
Ensconced within the permanent collections on the MAK's third floor is the 'Beauty Archive', which serves as a culmination of sorts. Here, Sagmeister & Walsh have combed through the MAK's extensive collections and highlighted a collection of objects chosen entirely on aesthetic grounds. “When selecting these pieces, we only cared about their formal qualities,” write the duo, and there is indeed a wealth of truly breathtaking pieces on display here, from a 17th-century illuminated Qur'an to a model of the E-Type Jaguar, from Max Bill's 1949 three-legged chair to Memphis glassware by Ettore Sottsass.
But in the exhibition guide, little information is given up about the items in the Beauty Archive and why Sagmeister & Walsh consider them beautiful (the catalogue fares a little better, offering brief captions) with the visitor left slightly at a loss as to the duo's selection process. For a few items, however, the guide does offer justifications for inclusion in the archive, and these are rather smugly self-referential. “As a young designer Stefan Sagmeister worked with Jenny Holzer[…] He has loved her work ever since,” says one note in the guide. “Rainer designed this chair in the 1950s for the Stadthalle concert hall in Vienna. Almost seventy years later, twelve of these chairs provide us with beautiful seating in our meeting room in New York,” reads another, referring to a 1952 chair by Roland Rainer.
Such captions reinforce the insight that things are not inherently beautiful, and that perceptions of beauty hinge on a range of arbitrary factors, such as having worked with an artist in one's youth, or one's being more likely to find beauty in the familiar. But they also smack of self-promotional brand-building, which ultimately tainted this reviewer's enjoyment of the beauty on show.