Sniff Central Park and see Bogota at dusk, 63 designers capture 'Beauty'

Story highlights

  • The Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial "Beauty" exhibition explores beauty in design and art
  • Curators: "Beauty can be serene or disruptive, comforting or chaotic"
  • "Beauty" features more than 250 works by 63 designers

This op-ed was co-written by "Beauty" Assistant Curator Andrea Lipps and Senior Curator of Contemporary Design Ellen Lupton.

(CNN)The old adage "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" holds true. Beauty is subjective.

Each of us is attracted to different people, and likewise, we are each drawn to works of art and design that won't appeal to everyone else.
To curate the exhibition "Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial" in New York City, we looked far and wide for different ways that designers assemble forms, textures, and colors. Beauty can be serene or disruptive, comforting or chaotic.
    We spoke with dozens of designers and asked what beauty means to them. Many described beauty as elusive and unknowable. Dutch ceramicist Olivier van Herpt told us, "Beauty is a fleeting dream of an object, thought, or moment." Van Herpt creates large-scale fluted ceramic vessels with a 3D printer that he built himself.

    The constant evolution of beauty

    Like clay, the concept of beauty is malleable.
    Across a lifetime, we each form our opinions based on what we see and experience.
    A sunset or a child's face fades and changes, but some instances of become permanent, fired like clay in a vessel or preserved in the threads of a garment or the surface of a poster.
    Many of the objects on display in our exhibition employ materials that have been transformed from solid to liquid and back again. Formafantasma has created objects from lava. Max Lamb has made a stool by casting pewter in a mold dug into the beach.
    In our interviews, we asked designers what time of day they find most beautiful. Many chose dawn or dusk, when natural light comes and goes.
    Daniel Rybakken's Compendium lights mimic daylight in a window.
    Like beauty, light changes quickly.
    Colombian designer Jorge Lizarazo, founder of Hechizoo, loves the purple light that descends on Bogotá at dusk; his tapestry Goliath, woven with metal threads, captures the quality of light as rain falls on the Amazon river.
    Daniel Rybakken, who endures long, dark winters in his native Norway, created his Compendium lights to mimic daylight entering through a window.

    Against the clock

    Many of the designers featured in "Beauty" explore the passing of time.
    To honor his grandmother's failing memory, Tuomas Markunpoika welded small rings of steel around a hulking wardrobe.
    He then burned away the wood, leaving behind a lacy shell of blackened metal.
    The piece became "a physical memory of the furniture—kind of a smoky, shady, semitransparent memory of it."
    Nail artist Naomi Yasuda creates lavish embellishments that last a short time, and Lauren Bowker of The Unseen invents materials that change color in response to heat and air currents.

    Beauty and the senses

    Beauty is a reaction, a response.
    Perhaps beauty is the ultimate user experience, arising from interactions between people and things.
    According to Cypriot lighting designer Michael Anastassiades, design is a conversation: "Beauty exists when making an object that people can relate to.
    Michael Anastassiade's Cypriot lighting
    Design, at the end of the day, is about communication." Anastassiades seeks elemental purity in his work—a sphere of glass perches on a slender stalk of brass, or the simple arcs of a chandelier activate the room around it. Beauty speaks to all the senses.
    Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum commissioned Sissel Tolaas to create a smell based on New York City's Central Park.
    Visitors to the museum can unlock the scent of the park by rubbing a wall covered with scented paint. Tolaas collected unique smells during a stunning a week in October, when the leaves and flowers of Central Park were beginning to melt into the earth and people were filling the park with energy.

    Challenging perceptions

    Sometimes, designers challenge the norms of beauty.
    Noa Zilberman created Wrinkles, a series of jewelry pieces that distribute lines of gold across the artist's face, neck, and cleavage.
    Jólan van der Wiel's "gravity machine" uses magnetic force to shape stools, shoes, and garments out of spiky shards of material.
    Gareth Pugh's spectacular gowns are meticulously assembled from plastic drinking straws, while the surprising hair constructions of Guido Palau and the prickly headpieces of Maiko Takeda turn users into seductively alien creatures.
    Palau told us, "I find the grotesque can be beautiful. I find things that are disturbing beautiful. I like beauty to sometimes shock me."
    As the force of physical attraction, beauty drives fertility, inspiration, creation, and reproduction. Beauty ricochets through the body and mind.
    For centuries, philosophers have contemplated beauty or have chosen to ignore it.
    Beauty has been the root of deep division and politicization. But our attraction to beauty endures.
    Headpieces by Maiko Takeda
    This exhibition seeks out objects, images, places, and materials that touch the body and mind. Such artifacts change the way we think and feel, pulling us into the moment.
    "Beauty -- Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial" is on view February 12 through August 21, 2016 in New York. More information can be found here.