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The Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial “Beauty” is currently on view at the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Inaugurated in 2000, the triennial looks at new developments in design as they surface in studios, fairs, shops, galleries and media around the world. For this edition, the museum engaged a panel of international curatorial advisors early in its process, notably, Adélia Borges (Brazil), Claire Catteral (England), Kenya Hara (Japan), Mugendi M’Rithaa (South Africa), Suvi Saloniemi (Finland), Sarah Scatturo (United States), and Annemartine Van Kesteren (Netherlands).
The sweeping subjectivity of beauty makes it a wildly ambitious theme to undertake. After compiling numerous books, piles of articles, hundreds of links, and active discussions on the topic, co-curators Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lipton finally decided on asking each designer directly, “What is beauty?,” coming to terms with the age-old axiom, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
This approach led to a far-reaching exploration of the concept that, understandably, had to be organized. Thus, the triennial’s content has been categorized into 7 different realms of beauty: extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative. Each category offers a particular lens of appreciation of what constitutes the beautiful, although a pertinent yet sporadic reflection on the roles of nature, technology, culture, human cognitive senses and emotions in its perception, shines throughout. Fortunately, this echo obliterates the designed delimitation.
“You know beauty is really what connects us to design, desire and emotion, and sensation which are all very important components of the human condition,” said co-curator Lipps during a press preview.
With the resourceful ingenuity of its designers, the triennial compellingly expands the conversation on ideas of beauty, associating the concept to transformative power, aesthetic innovation, and astonishing forms for new function. Notable pieces include Oxman’s 3D synthetic wearable external organisms; Jenny E. Sabin’s solar active polythread knitted textile pavilion; Aaron Koblin and Vincent Morisset’s interactive video clip of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor (new elements will appear in the video if you watch it through your smartphone camera); Sissel Thomas’ olfactory wall (a white wall that conveys distinctive smells collected in Central Park that have been preserved using nanotechnology); or Alexander Daisy Ginsberg’s project Designing for the Sixth Extinction (depicting creatures that could some day clean the air of toxins, neutralize acid in the soil and scatter seeds); among numerous others.