The topic for the fifth Cooper Hewitt Triennial follows their own tradition of broad-based and slippery subjects, like “Why Design Now” in 2010, that would scare the most talented curator. As a matter of fact, beauty is a millenary and universal concept while its standards are constantly changing and subject to cultural bias.
How to be unbiased but personal, accurate but not trendy, selective but not incomplete when it comes to beauty? How to make tangible such an elusive idea?
In any case, the world needs beauty and even if the underlying question of the Cooper Hewitt 2016 Triennial is“Why beauty now?” one must hope that the concept itself will never be outdated. Undoubtedly aware of this constant urgency, Ellen Lupton, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Design, and Andrea Lipps, the Assistant Curator, selected 250 works by 63 designers that were suggested by a panel of international curators. They identified seven themes that define the structure of the show: “extravagant”, “intricate”, “ethereal”, “transgressive”, “emergent”, “elemental”, and “transformative”. The selection covers a large range of disciplines and materials, including products, furniture, fashion, graphics, jewelry, architecture, as well as typefaces, video games, video clips, apps, or even smells. The combination leads to a tasteful and sensual celebration of the contemporary design scene, even if the show’s division between the first and third floors of the museum disrupts the reading of the show.
What about beauty? Is it hidden in the folds of the extravagant dress by Giambattista Valli that opens the exhibit? If beauty is the product of an era, should we focus more on the 3D process used by Neri Oxman to create prototypes for a future system of organs to wear outside one’s body? Or does it agelessly lie in the fragmented memory of a loved one, as Tuomas Markunpoika suggests with his ghost cabinet? The selection may satisfy a variety of visitors’ quests for beauty, and the seven themes, “like John Ruskin's seven 'lamps of architecture',” as Ellen Lupton writes in her catalogue, enlighten sometimes in “beautiful” ways unexpected relationships between the projects.
However, even in our globalized word, beauty remains a cultural matter and one can argue that the show mostly targets the ideals of a specific community of occidental, educated, and informed audience. Is that saying that beauty belongs to the happy few?
It certainly is fashionable at the moment: the 2015 edition of the International Design Biennale of Saint-Étienne, France, was named “Experiences of Beauty.” In a wide but uneven selection, the Biennale showed a variety of projects that weren’t entirely focused on form and aesthetics, at times for better but often for worse. But it was somehow conceptually adventurous. One of the nine exhibitions, “Tu nais, tuning, tu meurs,” explored car tuning, a practice often disregarded as pointless and vulgar, as an example of how aesthetic values can be sanctioned by a so-called legitimate cultural elite versus an unofficial working-class culture. And yet car tuning is a pure product of our post-industrial societies that deserves to be examined as a living form of material culture.
It is precisely the designer’s role to challenge the world we live in. Apart from a few critical or fictional projects like the Wrinkle Collection Cleavage by Noa Zilberman, or Designing for the Sixth Extinction by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, the exhibition fails to convey a more challenging, perhaps unconventional idea of what is beauty in 2016.
The exhibition is on view until August 21, 2016.