The Eye of the Beholder

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum's new Triennial examines beauty through lots of new lenses.

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Makeup by Pat McGrath (British, b. 1966), for W Magazine, March 2014; Photographed by Steven Meisel; Styled by Marie-Amelie Sauve. Featured in book; new work is presented in exhibition. © Steven Meisel / Art + Commerce.
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Seven is considered a notorious number in the world of storytelling: Snow White had seven dwarves; there are seven deadly sins; seven colors in the rainbow. So it was somewhat fortuitous when the curators of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum arrived at seven themes for this year's Triennial exhibition, Beauty. The fifth installment of the museum's series, the show departs from past projects, which focused on social and environmental issues. "We were excited to explore the sensual side of design," says curator Ellen Lupton. "We wanted to change direction and look at how design creates feelings of joy, surprise, wonder, and awe in the minds and bodies of individual viewers. 

"We wanted to look at how design creates feelings of joy, surprise, wonder, and awe" - Ellen Lupton, curator.

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Turning to how we experience design, Lupton and her fellow curators looked at works like a forehead tiara by Israeli jeweler Noa Zilberman that resembles wrinkles and avant-garde makeup by Pat McGrath and identified seven categories through which to examine beauty: Extravagant, Intricate, Ethereal, Transgressive, Emergent, Elemental, and Transformative. "It was like studying Tarot cards, laying out the work we'd found in search of patterns," says Lupton. They arrived at a show featuring 63 designers spanning fashion, art, and architecture around the globe. Here, we pick our seven highlights from the show.

1.  Extravagant

Hair styled by Guido Palau; Photographed by Fabien Baron; 2011. Featured in book; new work is presented in exhibition. © Guido / Art + Commerce.
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The first theme in the show, Extravagant, explores how designers seduce the eye with rich materials and deceptive surfaces. Case in point, this dramatic haircut by iconic stylist Guido Palau. Other artists in this section include fashion designer Giambattista Valli, makeup artist Pat McGrath, and nail artist Naomi Yasuda.

2. Intricate

Wire and thread are hand-wrapped around fique plant fibers create an iridescent rug, 2014. Featured in book; alternate object appears in exhibition. Image courtesy of Hechizoo.

The Intricate section looks at ornate and complex craftsmanship—from the stylized typography of Scandinavian-American design firm Non-Format to the elaborate wallpaper installation by Dutch design duo Studio Job. Here, we see a tapestry from Colombian textile atelier Hechizoo, which is woven with fish scales, porcupine quills, copper, and polymetal to represent the Amazon.

3. Ethereal

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This section examines designers who work in the ephemeral space where time, light, or air affect the permanence of the work. The museum has commissioned scent artist Sissel Tolaas, who has preserved molecules from Central Park and created a unique smell that's been captured in a microencapsulated paint (visitors rub the paint to release the aroma). One of the more visual works is this one by jeweler Maiko Takeda in her "Atmospheric Reentry" headpiece that is influenced by shadows, wind, and gravity.

4. Transgressive

Ana Rajcevic (Serbian, active in Germany and United Kingdom, b. 1983); Wearable sculpture, from ANIMAL: The Other Side of Evolution collection, 2012; Fiberglass, polyurethane, rubber; 21 x 34 x 16 cm (8 1/4 x 13 3/8 x 6 5/16 in.). ©
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The designers in the Transgressive section challenge established notions of beauty and gender. Works include unisex clothing by Rad Hourani, the Haas Brothers' beaded creatures made in collaboration with the Khayelitsha settlement outside Cape Town, South Africa, and this headpiece by Ana Rajcevic—the wearable sculpture blurs the lines between humans and animals.

5. Emergent

Daniel Brown (British, b. 1977) for D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum (Dundee, Scotland, founded 1880s); Still from Darwin flower animation, from On Growth and Form series; 2013; Real-time 3D (OpenGL / DirectX) flowers engine. © Daniel Brown.

The Emergent theme presents works that utilize code and mathematics. On view are Neri Oxman's 3-D printed wearable objects and Jenny Sabin's walk-in, knitted structure, commissioned for the exhibition, that can store and transmit light. Here, Daniel Brown's digital blossoms, taken from his "On Growth and Form" flower animation.

6. Elemental

Industrial Facility (London, England, founded 2002): Sam Hecht (British, b. 1969) and Kim Colin (American, b. 1961) for Herman Miller (Zeeland, Michigan, USA, founded 1905); Formwork series, 2014; ABS plastic with non-slip silicone base. © Cooper Hewitt.

Elemental looks at designers who use basic materials to create clean, geometric forms. Works like FormaFantasma's mirror, made from lava rock and obsidian, and this series of silicone containers by Industrial Facility will be on view.

7. Transformative

Jantje Fleischhut (German, active in Netherlands, b. 1972); Brooch, no. 8, from How Long Is Now collection, 2014; Polyamide, Ytong aerated concrete block, sponge, resin, foam; 7 × 9 × 9 cm (2 4/5 × 3 1/2 × 3 1/2 in.). © Jantje Fleischhut.

Transformative features designers who use familiar materials in an unexpected way. Designers featured include Brynjar Sigurðarson, who makes furniture from materials of Icelandic fisherman and Jantje Fleishhut's precious jewelry that resembles asteroids and interstellar debris.

Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial is open now through August 21, 2016. For more information, visit

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