What is Beauty?

As our culture rapidly changes, our definition of this ideal becomes even more elusive.

As we searched for the right image to feature on this month’s cover—something timely, and unusually provocative, smart, and beautiful—we realized that all our descriptors still apply, but that “beauty” has become an elusive ideal. Design’s expressions—product design in this case, but we may as well be talking about design at every scale—have become more complex than the foreground objects we celebrated in the last century.

Starchitects are taking a beating. Their highly photogenic and sculptural forms are under attack by designers and critics alike. Even fashion designers, celebrated as master stylists, are looking for something more connected to the issues that define our time. As I write, an e-mail arrives from Lynda Grose, a professor at the California College of the Arts, alerting me to her new book, Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change. In it, she and her coauthor, Kate Fletcher, a professor at London College of Fashion, predict a radical transformation of their industry. They talk about garments designed to be reused and recycled, as well as an increased reliance on innovative materials. Thus, they challenge a notoriously wasteful and frivolous industry, which, as they see it, will need activist designers, as well as a rethinking of manufacturing and distribution methods.

Like the rest of the world, the design world is in upheaval. No wonder. We know more about more things than at any time in human history, and new information is coming at us at warp speed. We sample bits and pieces of a vast world knowledge, and try, somehow, to make sense of it. Designers like Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien are learning from the Eameses, the Castiglionis, the British craft tradition, and the Indian vernacular, even as they use advanced technologies and manufacturing methods. In the duo’s highly personal interiors, modern classics coexist peacefully with their own multiculturally influenced designs. They favor the ensemble over the foreground object.

As we cope with momentous changes, we long for someone to emulate and admire, someone who designs memorable and beautiful things. And so we’re drawn to America’s first star designer, Duncan Phyfe, who lived and worked in New York more than 150 years ago. This master craftsman was a savvy entrepreneur who found a unique market for his elegant designs. He lived through a severe economic depression and times of great change. His life and work reminds us that a combination of talent, skill, and integrity is a beautiful thing to behold.

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