Searching for Beauty

A little beauty can be a dangerous thing. Just ask Helen of Troy, whose face is said to have sparked the Trojan War. For the past century, the art world has feared aesthetics and avoided beauty for its perceived banality. But has beauty ever really left us?

 Nail Designs by Tsumabeni, 2016, nail polish, acrylic. Photo by Julie Muñiz.

Nail Designs by Tsumabeni, 2016, nail polish, acrylic. Photo by Julie Muñiz.

In the design world the answer is No. Aesthetics is at the heart of all good design. It was surprising then to see beauty as the theme for the Cooper Hewitt’s latest triennial. But Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial is more than just a collection of beautiful objects. It strives to make us explore beauty in different ways.

The exhibition includes 280 works by sixty international designers working in a variety of fields. In addition to the typical tropes ones would expect to see in a design exhibition (i.e. graphic design, typography, fashion), there were also some surprising elements including nail art, hair design, and even TV opening credits.

The exhibition breaks beauty down into seven sections—intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative. While dividing the exhibition is necessary given its scope, these categories are rough and suggestive as pieces could easily move between them in. But then again, that is likely the point the curators are trying to make. The sections offer a way to experience the design work, but not are meant to be definitive. Rather, they provide a starting point from which to view beauty from a variety of different lenses.

Beauty is currently on view at the San Jose Museum of Art until February 19. 

 Skirt And Top, from Fall / Winter 2014–15 Haute Couture collection, 2014 tulle degradé, silk taffeta. Courtesy of Giambattista Valli. 19.2015.1a/c

Skirt And Top, from Fall / Winter 2014–15 Haute Couture collection, 2014 tulle degradé, silk taffeta. Courtesy of Giambattista Valli. 19.2015.1a/c

 Atmospheric Reentry, from Atmospheric Reentry collection, 2013–2014 acetate, acrylic, plated brass. Courtesy of Maiko Takeda.

Atmospheric Reentry, from Atmospheric Reentry collection, 2013–2014 acetate, acrylic, plated brass. Courtesy of Maiko Takeda.

 Jacket, The Scarab, from A I R Collection, 2016 leather, heat and wind reactive ink. Courtesy of TheUnseen.

Jacket, The Scarab, from A I R Collection, 2016 leather, heat and wind reactive ink. Courtesy of TheUnseen.

 Print, Seeing through Circles, 2013 hand-stamped print. Courtesy of Kyuha Shim.

Print, Seeing through Circles, 2013 hand-stamped print. Courtesy of Kyuha Shim.

 Poster, Elsewhere exhibition, KK Outlet gallery, London, 2014 silkscreen printed in black and bronze ink. Courtesy of Non-Format.

Poster, Elsewhere exhibition, KK Outlet gallery, London, 2014 silkscreen printed in black and bronze ink. Courtesy of Non-Format.

 Jenny E. Sabin’s “PolyThread Knitted Textile Pavilion.” 2015, 3-D printed nylon. Photo by Julie Muñiz.

Jenny E. Sabin’s “PolyThread Knitted Textile Pavilion.” 2015, 3-D printed nylon. Photo by Julie Muñiz.