If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, the curators of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum faced a daunting task when they chose beauty for the latest design triennial’s theme. Luckily, the museum managed to craft an exquisite survey, displaying an array of design as well as challenging our definitions of beauty.
We’re welcomed into a world of beauty in a very expected way: an extravagant Giambattista Valli gown, complete with a mille-feuille skirt rendered in shades of salmon, rose, and carnation. Almost cartoonish in its embodiment of traditional standards of pulchritude, the outfit’s excess and resplendence prepare us for more wildly abstract interpretations of beauty throughout the exhibition.
The show is organized around different categories of beauty, from the aesthetically driven, with groupings like “Extravagant” and “Intricate,” to the more sociological (“Transgressive”) and material-based (“Elemental”). The works are diverse in their scale, medium, material, and, quite importantly, the ethnicity of their makers, showcasing a global experience and understanding of beauty. From South African knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s fashions inspired by the Xhosa to the Haas brothers’ collaboration with craftswomen from the Khayelitsha township in South Africa, usually underrepresented forms of beauty (not to mention artists) play prominently in the show.