From Textiles and Scents, to Posters and a 3D-Printed Pavilion, the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial Ponders Beauty

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
Curator Ellen Lupton walks us through a few of the highlights from "Beauty," the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s design triennial, on view through August 21.

"Beauty" may not be the first buzzword that comes to mind when approaching contemporary design, but it's perhaps the most enduring, and ephemeral—from the days of antiquity to the present, beauty has long been a topic of consternation by philosophers and creative minds alike. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s latest design triennial, Beauty (through August 21) explores the complexity of that very topic head-on, with a multifaceted viewpoint that's rooted firmly in the present—and the potential future.

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INTRICATE

Lively patterned fabrics from African textiles company Vlisco (center) and posters by Iranian graphic designer Homa Delvaray (left) are the centerpieces of works displayed under the "Intricate" heading, alongside a iridescent wallcovering by Colombian collective Hechizoo (right), which is inspired by rain falling on the Amazon.

"Intricacy is a traditional area of decorative art, including tattoos, and ornamentation, but also the body," says curator Ellen Lupton, who organized the show with assistant curator Andrea Lipps. "It's an area of fascination that's both primitive, but also very advanced. There are these intricate structures that emerge, often from manipulating a material to create that intricacy. That's really a theme throughout the whole show—stunning details, however they might be produced."

The bold choice of theme is coolly subversive, in light of the museum's previous triennials, which tackled ambitious topics at the intersection of social design, infrastructure, and service. "We thought the notion of beauty was sort of oddly edgy," says curator Ellen Lupton, who organized the show with assistant curator Andrea Lipps. "There’s a whole emphasis in the design world right now on design thinking, as well as innovation and technology and service design, systems versus objects; we’re all into that—and the show’s about that, too. Beauty is also a big tradition of this museum, which is historically rooted in the decorative arts."

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EXTRAVAGANT

"This room includes the classic makeup, jewelry, nails, hair—and a ball gown!" says Lupton. "This is what first comes to mind when people think of beauty, but these are all of those things at an extreme form." At center is a couture gown by Giambattista Valli; the portraits at left show otherworldly, bejeweled visages by makeup artist Pat McGrath. The photographs at right show experimental coifs by hairstylist Guido Palau.

The fifth edition of the museum's design triennial, Beauty features more than 250 works explored through seven thematic descriptors—extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative—and runs the gamut, from furniture and product design, to fashion and jewelry, crafted and 3D-printed objects, graphic posters, and even digital interfaces and speculative designs. "It seemed like a moment to celebrate the designer, and the sensuality and richness of design," says Lupton. "It became a very clear lens, because not all designers are interested in beauty; it isn't the only concern."

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EMERGENT

Among the technology-driven selections in this section are 3D-printed glass vessels by Neri Oxman of MIT's Mediated Matter Group, which transpire Spirograph-like, caustic patterns when illuminated from above. "These are all formal prototypes for a technique [Oxman] developed; it's a really incredible material that has potential applications for smart buildings," says Lupton. "These lines are layers of hollowed glass that are coiled up. At a larger scale, there could be liquid running through them to cool a structure, or wiring for a smart-building system."

Far from preaching a singular standard of beauty, the alluring pieces on display pose alternative, and refreshingly diverse depictions that break wide open that elusive, age-old notion. A catalogue companion to the show, itself a distinctive object, designed by Kimberly Varella of Content Object Design Studio, collects each of the featured designers’ takes on the topic, many of them poetic musings: "Beauty is a fleeting dream of an object, thought, or moment," says Dutch ceramicist Olivier van Herpt, whose 3D-printed vessels are on display. It’s certainly a fitting and beautiful thought.

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"This is all knitted using a 3D-knitting process; the pattern is based on how cells form, but it's also dictated by the tension of the structure," says Lupton of a spatial installation by Jenny Sabin, also included in the 'Emergent' grouping. "It's kind of like a tent held together by the fabric, and the threads are photo-luminscent, so in theory, they collect daylight and release it by night. We've simulated that indoors by having the light cycle from day to night—right now, we're in dawn."

Check out our walk-through of the exhibition above, with commentary from Lupton.

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ETHEREAL

"This piece is by Tuomas Markunpoika—he took a traditional wardrobe and covered it with welded steel rings, then burned away the wood," explains Lupton. "We love this idea of process, and the story of the making of the object." To the right are headdresses by fashion designer Maiko Takeda.

 
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Also included in the 'ethereal' section is a scent design by Sissel Tolaas, who was commissioned to create a smell based on Central Park. "It's very earthy," says Lupton.

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TRANSGRESSIVE

"They're just stunning, weird, otherworldly, and completely intricate," says Lupton of the Afreaks collection by the Haas Brothers, who hand-beaded each piece in collaboration with South African craftswomen, affectionately referred to as the "Haas Sisters."

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ELEMENTAL

The 'elemental' grouping collects items that display an elegantly spare use of "essential materials," says Lupton. Among the selection is Michael Anastassiades's Mobile Chandelier (center), made from black patinated brass and mouth-blown opaline glass.

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TRANSFORMATIVE

The seventh and final section features knitted garments by Laduma Hgxokolo (front); behind them are architectural furnishings by designers Dokter and Misses, which were inspired by painted African houses. "This one comes from a whole village of pieces," says Lupton, "and they all have hidden storage that's part of them."

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