The Problem with Beauty Contests

Can we understand the complexities of design if we keep pretending that it’s only about appearance?

We’re sitting around a conference table at IIDA headquarters, in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, looking at pictures of interiors on a large screen. Ken Wilson and I moderate the lively discussion by the jurors of the first-ever IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Awards. Eva Maddox and Jeff Barber are present; Neil Frankel is expected to register his choices from Milan. Prior to deliberations the jurors were sent a disk of 51 entries from which they chose the 15 most beautiful projects (that would yield six winners) without knowing the stories behind them. After all, if it’s not beautiful, then it’s not good design (and no designer would dare disagree with this statement). But these awards are for projects that reveal their designers’ understanding of sustainability, and how well the rooms serve their inhabitants’ needs. Beauty, here, is an expression of a series of thoughtful and complicated decisions.

Even as a whole new set of requirements is added to the design brief, designers continue to communicate their accomplishments through pictures—in magazines, portfolios, and competitions. This practice has a fatal flaw at its core, and a competition like Smart Environments begins to reveal it. Only by reading a detailed description of the decisions that went into creating a beautiful vignette can jurors begin to evaluate the designer’s skill and knowledge of space, form, and materials, as well as appreciate the many decisions that went into making a room work for the people inside it. (There is no way, of course, that anyone looking at pictures accompanied by even the most intricate descriptions can determine how an interior is really experienced, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.)

At first glance it’s impossible to tell if one entry, a Toronto architecture office with shimmering white surfaces and bright accents, might be harboring toxic contaminants as so many of its sleek-looking counterparts do. In this case, however, the walls, floors, furniture, lighting, electronic equipment, and HVAC system exhale a minimum of toxins, making for a healthy workplace. But the key to this design’s success is another crucial factor: choice of address. The building was selected for its operable windows, proximity to public transit, and storage space for bicycles, as well as its fully realized recycling program. How would anyone have known the complex story behind these attractive photographs? How can we presume to judge any design from a picture?

As I agonize over the inadequacy of photographs and how this one-dimensional presentation method does injustice to design work, I think of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood actress of the 1930s and ’40s is often seen in high-contrast black-and-white photos that reveal a gorgeous woman with exquisite features. But there was more to Hedy than her good looks. She was a complex, intelligent person, well aware of the limitations of image, and famous for saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy Lamarr was anything but that. She was an inventor. During WWII she patented (under the name Markey, the second of her six husbands) “frequency hopping,” a wavelength-switching system for torpedoes, meant to confuse the enemy. Her concept was used by the U.S. government in 1962 during the Cuban blockade to scramble messages; today it’s behind cell phones. For an image-obsessed design community struggling for public acceptance and recognition, her story is worth remembering. Beauty may be skin deep, but smart goes much deeper.

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