Last fall, the renowned design team of Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh published their treatise “Beauty” from Phaidon Books. Their premise is that beauty as a concept has been replaced by practicality. According to the authors, Bauhaus, the modernist creed of the grid, functionality, and analytical theory celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has replaced aesthetics. As noted within, the term today is rarely mentioned in contemporary books on architecture and design. Holding no bars, Sagmeister & Walsh state that this rejection of beauty is “utterly stupid.” Their renunciation of the “psychotic sameness” of modernist architecture recalls the controversial essay of Tom Wolfe, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” published in 1981.
“Beauty” is As Beauty Does
Beginning with cave paintings and moving on the Golden Ratio, Sagmeister & Walsh present a compelling, historically based argument for the importance of beauty in our everyday lives. They created Instagram surveys on the subject and tabulate the responses within, while the book presents those same questions for the reader to answer. Using artistic, scientific, and philosophical explorations, they arrive at a consensus as to beauty is perceived and how it can improve our existence.
One would expect the book itself to be a beautiful object and it is, although in an expected, traditional sense, unlike Sagmeister’s earlier tome, “Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far” from Abrams in 2009, which was a book only in how it was distributed. Rather, it was a collection of saddle-stitched brochures bound together in a die-cut slip case featuring Stefan’s visage which would transform as the brochures beneath were rotated. Likewise, his first book, “Made You Look,” published in 2001 by Thames & Hudson, featured a placid looking German Shepard on the cover until thered plastic slip cover revealed its bark. No such bells and whistles here.
Sagmeister & Walsh Ask Away
Is beauty symmetrical? Is beauty safe? Is beauty only skin deep? Does beauty equal goodness and truth? Is beauty simple or complex? Is beauty transformative? Can human artifice ever equal nature in its beauty? These are all questions we should pose to our students in the classroom. And to ourselves. While the book does not draw a hard conclusion, Sagmeister & Walsh raise these questions. And perhaps that is exactly what is needed today.
According to the authors, “Beauty stands in a realm of its own. While it eludes an easy definition, people know it when they see it.”