Beauty Is Dead

We sent two of our sharpest minds to Stefan Sagmeister's Game Changer talk at Vivid. Here's their take on his his talk. 

Beauty is part of the function

While this idea appears in small, fleeting type at the bottom of the Sagmeister & Walsh website, it was a central focus of Stefan Sagmeisters game changer talk on Wednesday night.

Opening with an example of beauty and carnage, the images of decorative cannons and battlements adorning the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon introduced the idea that beauty is an intrinsic part of being human. Even in this castle, a construct of military function, the pursuit of beauty in design was clearly evident, and while it may not have assisted in the action of hurtling 32 pound balls of stone, was the decorative nature of these cannons truly void of function?

If we took the opinion of architect and designer Adolf Loos, then the answer would seem to be yes. Sagmeisters introduction of Loos painted him as the archenemy of beauty; the modernist architect whos aim was to strip away ornament and decoration in favour of function and simplicity.
While this sentiment may have been practical for the time; a post-war era where resources were limited and destruction had left cities with a shortage of housing, as Sagmeister says, its 100 fucking years later, and still its influence is evident. The slides of international airports, major city train stations, and masses of apartment complexes, each more or less identical, were a far cry from the images of uniquely ornamented buildings that populated old districts of Venice and Paris.
As Sagmeister points out however, these functional designs, the easily replicable stations and airports, simply fail to function. When it comes to human interaction, and human experience, the sentiment of function over beauty is lacking in a very fundamental consideration: humans. All it takes is one look at the repetitive, boring, and often confusing designs of stations in places like Munich and even Sydney, where all there is to distinguish stops is usually some small sign that you have to make a decent effort to find just so you know where the hell you are.
By contrasting this with images of the immaculate train stations that serve as massive tourist hot spots for travellers to Moscow, Sagmeister makes his point clear that beauty is part of the function. The unique character of each station makes them far easier to distinguish, as well as creating the added function of a major tourist attraction, a function that each stations sheer beauty easily fulfils.

The São Jorge Castle is another example of an attraction that regularly brings tourists to its battlements with the allure of its beautifully ornate passageways, exteriors, and decorative cannons. This seemingly impractical pursuit of beauty in designs that exist for a very specific function, in this case death and destruction, are a reflection of the very reason they still function today; beauty is simply a part of being human. Sagmeister went on to present a Sagmeister & Walsh work from 2011, Seven Deadly Sins; a series of decorative designs for Loos glassware that were suggested by Loos. This example was proof that even Loos himself couldnt resist the allure of beauty and ornament, and while the cold sameness of things still permeates so much of modern design (just look at the addiction to readily available web templates), images of the New York High Line and Hamburg Philharmonic demonstrated the growing revival of beauty in function, and added weight to Sagmeisters conclusion that Now is Better.

Thomas Nickeas, Design wizard > @tnickeas

Is beauty dead?

Sagmeister described how the design world has largely moved to focus on functionality and conceptual ideas, while often seeing beauty as an archaic concept. Throughout his speech, he argued for a renewed emphasis on beauty in art, design and architecture, citing many examples and benefits of this approach.

 While travelling to international conferences, Sagmeister had a realisation. He had travelled from a conference in the ornamental São Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal to another event at dull convention centre in Memphis, Tennessee. Sagmeister observed that the American conference centre was purely focused on function; there was no additional effort spent on designing the building to be aesthetically pleasing. In comparison, the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon was made with the goal of being both functional and beautiful. The castle had originally served a military purpose, but nevertheless a remarkable amount of work had been put into the aesthetics of the building, creating a visual appeal that was still appreciated centuries later.

Sagmeister discussed the catalysts for the shift away from beauty and ornamental design. He argued that the early modernist architects who contributed to the ‘International Style’ of architecture often excluded traditional decorative details, opting instead for smooth and minimal surfaces. He described how architecture, previously inseparable from its country of origin has been heavily influenced globally by the International Style. Sagmeister argued strongly against the kind of ‘one size fits all’ approach that produces a similar outcome regardless of the history, culture or climate of the location where a building is situated.

Can seedy underpasses be beautiful? 

Sagmeister didn’t question the pervasive dullness of subway stations until he visited Moscow in Russia. He was impressed by the uniqueness and aesthetic qualities of each individual subway station. Sagmeister argued that not only were the stations beautiful but that their ornamental design served an inseparable functional purpose. The visual difference between stations allowed daily commuters to easily identify their location and stimulated the city by attracting new visitors.

Sagmeister emphasised that beautiful places have an emotional impact on those who visit them. To illustrate this point he showed a map of New York City’s emotional sentiments as inferred from twitter statuses. Using this map, Sagmeister demonstrated that Penn Station had a high proportion of negative sentiments, while the more visually appealing Grand Central Station typically had positive sentiments associated with it.

Sagmeister praised the High Line in New York City; an elevated public walking space made on an unused section of railway line. The space was transformed in 2009 to feature a beautifully designed walking path. He was impressed with the remarkably low crime rate on the High Line; another interesting argument for the positive societal impact of beautiful public spaces.

 Sagmeister also described how he has put his own ideas into practice. His design firm transformed a once seedy underpass in Brooklyn into what has unexpectedly become a kind of wedding chapel. Inspired by Yoko Ono, two large murals inscribe the word ‘yes!’ in immaculate typography.

Sagmeister’s unique perspective on beauty in design has relevance to almost every field. If we start to consider the aesthetic appeal of design as inseparable from its functional properties, we might have the opportunity to design work that strikes a deeper emotional chord with our audiences.

Joel Snyder, Creative Technologist & avid keyboard cruncher