Designers are generally concerned with aesthetics and function, and put the two together to communicate or to enhance life in some way. Aesthetics, the word, comes to us out of the Greek and carries a meaning dealing with sensory perception. Aesthetics are the principles behind the idea of beauty. They are the structure and foundation of beauty.
When asked, “What is beauty? Why do we consider something beautiful?” the response most often given is “attractiveness”, “visual pleasure”,” pleasant-looking”. Then comes the usual discussion about how a thing can look good to one person but not to another. Beauty, then, is deemed a matter of personal taste; subjective and open to opinion and change.
I dove deeper into the definition of beauty and have concluded there are two camps: the one that considers beauty as being “skin-deep” and subject to personal opinion or even popularity, and the other one that takes a more objective stand which has endured centuries of stylistic trends. This objective stand defines beauty as ideal, excellent, virtuous, fitting (not out of place), timeless and valuable. It carries more a sense of character and structure than simply looking good (décor).
Prior to the mid-Twentieth Century, this objective definition was the one people understood. For instance, a woman would be considered beautiful not necessarily because of her physical appearance, but because of her character and constitution; her virtue and how she valued herself. As her outward appearance changed due to time or circumstance, she was still considered beautiful because she cultivated an internal excellence. The décor could change, but the structure was sound.
Compare this with our current standards of beauty. We tend to regard only the outward appearance (the form). We seem to care little for the structure behind the form. We like to be tantalized and stimulated. When appearance becomes flawed or worn, we move on to look at something else. We seek a prettier, skinnier super model. Our mobile phones are no longer fitting. Our clothing, although quite functional, finds its way to the donation pile because it is out of season. As a designer, I admit that all of this desire for visual appeal keeps us designers in business.
Is beauty open to the whim of opinion and trend? Or is it timeless and enduring?
Beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder should know what it’s looking for.