Beauty – Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial 05.04.16

Written by  Caia Hagel
  • Wearable Sculpture, from ANIMAL: The Other Side of Evolution series, 2012, by Ana Rajcevic

  • Skirt and top, from Fall/Winter 2014–15 Haute Couture Collection, by Giambattista Valli

  • Chair from Cooper Series, 2015, by Max Lamb

  • Rendering of Bioaerosol Microtrapping Biofilm, from Designing for the Sixth Extinction, 2013, by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

  • Prototype, Polybrick Series, 2014 by Jenny E Sabin and Sabin Design Lab, Cornell Architecture

  • Model of knitted textile pavilion, 2015, by Jenny E. Sabin

From the ethereal to the grotesque, a show in New York surprises and enthrals by mixing elements of design we don’t traditionally think of as equal, says Caia Hagel

The fifth installment of the Cooper Hewitt museum’s contemporary design exhibition series is its most ambitious iteration yet, showing work that spans from experimental prototypes and free-to-download smartphone games to haute couture and an architectural pavilion. More than 250 works by 63 international designers are united over two floors under the unlikely, nebulous design theme: beauty.

Beauty, here, is seen through seven lenses: extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental and transformative. We begin with the luxurious gowns of Giambattista Valli and the geometric dresses of Mary Katrantzou, which introduce classical, swoony notions of beauty. These give way to works like the transformational Copper and Scrap Poly Pastel chairs by Max Lamb and, as we move upstairs, more confronting animalistic headpieces by Ana Rajcevic. A standout is the malodorous scent piece by Sissel Tolaas, where the pungent smells of Central Park’s tree leaves, sweaty joggers, drifting taxi fumes and horse shit are all included in a scratchable scented paint. Of the grotesque that appears in this section, co-curator Andrea Lipps says: “By blurring boundaries between considerations of beauty, we get closer to the sublime, which engenders awe in us.”

Other memorable pieces are the knitted textile pavilion by avant-garde architect Jenny Sabin, who has also developed a 3D printable polybrick for this work, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, a work of speculative design where synthetic biology is applied to biodiversity to envisage a regenerative future where synthetic species perform bioremediating tasks: a slug-like creature neutralises soil acidity, for example, and a porcupine-like creature collects and disperses seeds. “I call this sci-fi design,” Lipps says, adding that the ideas it puts forth are not highly improbable either. “These are important questions for us to be thinking about today. How comfortable or knowledgeable are we about how far technology is taking us?” Ginsberg’s work seems to answer that, if technology is going to take us forward, we must imaginatively investigate its potential and harness it for good.

The interrelationships between the designs on show are pioneering in themselves for mixing elements of culture that we don’t traditionally think of as equal, or sometimes even as culture. The inclusion of fashion and phone apps, often overlooked when presenting cultural influences, emphasises the many important ways in which design enters our lives. Getting dressed and playing on our phones are some of the first design acts we engage in every morning and are some of the conscious decisions we make everyday about our identity and self-expression.

As we move through this show, we encounter more unexpected layers of beauty, and notice how our senses and emotions engage with these objects. We feel, smell, hear, see and touch through what is presented as aesthetically innovative in today’s designs – an all-too-often unsung sybaritic principle that has as much power, use and value as what’s utilitarian about design. We sense amid these myriad works that our contemporary moment is pluralistic and that, perhaps as a contrapposto to our digital, screen-centric lives, what we’re yearning for most in experience right now is being in our bodies and in the presence of something that grounds us sensually in the everyday. “We are seeking deeper fulfillment in our material world,” Lipps concurs, “and an acceptance and celebration of the real.”

Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial runs in New York until 21 August 2016



Caia Hagel

quotes story

By blurring boundaries between considerations of beauty, we get closer to the sublime, which engenders awe in us

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