Stefan Sagmeister opens his charming and insightful talk on beauty with images of a medieval castle in Lisbon where he was invited to speak at a conference. "Almost every aspect of it was informed by form."
From Lisbon Sagmeister travelled to Memphis, Tenessee, to speak at the Cook convention center. Looking around, you could see nothing that has been made with a formal consideration in mind.
"How did we manage to get from the darkest side of the middle ages into the 20th century and completely lost our desire to make something beautiful? I blame one single guy. My fellow Austrian architect Alfred Loos who lived in late 19th century Vienna."
The end of the 19th century was obsessed with beauty. The era was historicism, they built whatever they wanted. There's the city hall in Vienna which is gothic, the parlament which is Greek and then the Opera which is Renaissance architecture.
Loos had a reason to stop this. It was the age of the machine and he strived for an architecture that would reflect the current times. So Loos wrote a pamphlet called "Ornament and crime" which says that it's a crime to waste the time of craftmen as an architect with something silly as ornaments. Loos had of course a giant influence on Bauhaus.
As we all know, Bauhaus became the major influence of architecture and design for the next 100 years. Of course, some of it made sense at the time, Stefan admits. "Modernism reflected the power of technology, automization was embraced, the machine age started visually." And some of the leading proponents of Bauhaus, Mies von der Rohe, Corbusier and Gropius emerged as serious creators and did create a number of masterpieces.
The second generation though made an economic functionalism out of these ideas, Stefan reviews.
If you look at the oldest tools, hand axes – there are no tools that we used for a longer time – all of them are perfectly symmetrical. You could certainly work with assymetrical ones. So the form was chosen to make them look better, to make them beautiful. "And this is somehow meaningful."
"Beauty is part of what it means to be human." Yet, there is no high-end designer today that talks about beauty. It is seen as something below kitsch which can at least be read as ironic.
Of course, there was a need when Duchamps came on to end the 19th century and to introduce disgust, horror and sexuality in the arts. Sagmeister doesn't argue to get rid of this, but for one is ready for a re-introduction of beauty.
As an experiment, he shows a real and a fake Mondrian and let the audience vote which one is real. The majority gets it right. "So clearly we have some sense of beauty", Sagmeister reasons.
Even Loos believed in beauty. He designed a glass and wrote a letter to Lobmeyer, the producers, that he could see versions coming with little ornaments. Ironically, Lobmeyer recently commissioned Sagmeister Inc. to design ornaments for these glasses – designed by the writer of ornament and crime.
Of course, in the end beauty is not a question of simple vs. complex. It matters if something has been done with care or without thought.
Sagmeister also believes things do get better. One example is the universally loved highline in New York. Since it has been opened 4 years ago not a single handbag has been stolen on the highline. Not a single crime has been reported.
"Beauty is at the heart of function."
At the end, Sagmeister shows a short film they designed for the sentence "Things do get better now" with beautiful typographic installations of the words proving the very message of his panel, why beauty is meaningful.