Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty II: The Beauty of Functional Things

I hope you'll excuse my tardiness. But the extra time did help me to clarify what I was thinking - it went from an amorphous mess of impulses to a slightly less amorphous mess of impulses. Nonetheless, I feel that this entire inquiry is along the lines of - See ye this branch? Watch me crawl along it till I fall off or it breaks.

Last time, we talked about the experience of beauty. This is a part of the topic of beauty in general. Another part is objects which, in themselves, we think of as beautiful. Which is to say, some quality inhering in the object (yes, I'm going to include people in the category of object for now) induces in the viewer an experience of beauty. As we well know, not all objects induce an experience of beauty at first glance. This is why we bother to identify beauty at all - to distinguish beautiful objects from plain ones, or ugly ones.

Before getting to that, I'd like to catch y'all up on something that arose in the comments to the first post. Andrew asked:

So if in close proximity to the boundary our sensations become extreme and binary (good and bad; ecstasy and terror) then is your definition of beauty not simultaneously the definition of ugliness?

I chose to answer a slightly different question:

Andrew - You raise a good point, and I would contend that when we see properly, all things threaten to become beautiful - that ugliness itself is a concept pertaining only to evil, and not fundamentally to physical things, where it serves only to inform us that we are still sleeping.

I'm glad I could clear that up for you. The point being - there are no things ugly in themselves. The ugliness resides only in our inability to see. When we become wakeful, the thing we thought was ugly is seen as it is: beautiful. Beauty is, as Andrew almost says, a meaningless term, because it is synonymous with Being.

Let's turn again to Rodin, who has some things to say when his interviewer, Paul Gsell, quizzes him with regard to his sculpture Celle Qui Fut La Belle Heaulmière (She Who Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife):

Rodin says:

The vulgar readily imagine that what they consider ugly in existence is not a fit subject for the artist. They would like to forbid us to represent what displeases and offends them in nature. It is a great error on their part. What is commonly called ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty.

He then goes on to list some things people call ugly, and adds:

But let a great artist or a greater writer make use of one or the other of these uglinesses, instantly it is transfigured: with a touch of his fairy wand he has turned it into beauty; it is alchemy; it is enchantment!

[Rodin on Art, pp. 42-3]

Now, the more I re-read Rodin, the more I realize that staying up all night for a week reading his book when I was fifteen really influenced how I think about things. But I think he has got it topsy-turvy here. The alchemy is not worked upon the thing the artist depicts: it is worked on the viewer. The ugliness does not inhere in the thing, it inheres in the incapacity of the viewer to see beauty where it lives. The discipline of the artist is not to make things beautiful, but to make beautiful things comprehensible.

And that said, Rodin sculpted his belle heaulmière, like, once, preferring to spend most of his time on subjects more like this:

Only Rodin has the genius to see a monster like me as beautiful.

So, now that we've established that ugliness, like foreshortening, is all in your head, let's get down to the practical problem of the totally obvious distinction between beautiful objects and ugly ones or, more precisely, objects with a strong tendency to induce an experience of beauty, and objects with a weak tendency to induce an experience of beauty.

This is where the tardiness comes in handy, because I was trying to moosh up all the beautiful things into one definition, but I thought about it some more and I think I need two.

1. Beauty as pertains to material function.

This is a category of beauty with regard to objects that have a function and observably correspond in form with the requirements of that function. We can call this physical excellence, and it applies to a great many things. Two of them are extremely familiar, particularly to men:

Apologies if the car isn't the right instance, I don't know diddly about cars. This is my idea of a good-looking car:

The AMC Pacer, the coolest car ever made.

But I digress.

What I'm talking about is this - function, and perfect adaptation of form to function. Let me present you with two more instances of things so magnificently adapted to their functions as to be breathtaking:

The humble ice cream scoop. A tool of one part, adapted to allow torque to be used to accelerate the sharp end of a wedge. The wedge itself, curved to match the optimal scoop of ice cream. Perfect!

The human femur. Half of a ball joint at one end, half of a hinge joint at the other. Curved to enhance elasticity and reduce the shattering effects of stress, protuberant where cartilage needs a place to hang on. A simple one-part tool, awe-inspiring in its elegance.

This category of beauty pertains only to objects with functions, which is to say, living things and technological artifacts.

Take a few examples from each category:

A beautiful car: adapted to maximum acceleration while causing minimum wind resistance.
A beautiful rocket: adapted to escaping the gravity well of the Earth.
A beautiful sextant: adapted to yielding navigation information.
The escapement: beautiful in its adaptation to measuring time.

We call an eagle beautiful in its adaptation to airborne hunting.
We call a dolphin beautiful in its sleek adaptation to swimming.
We call a lion beautiful in its showy adaptation to hunting on land.
We call a beetle beautiful in its adaptation to exerting force while maximizing protection of its soft tissues.

Before we get to the final category, people, consider this: Apart from strict adaptation, there is a commonality to the instances of these categories which we perceive as most beautiful, and this is the exhibition of simplicity of design, particularly the deployment of the minimal and flawless curve. By this curve, the functional design is recognized. Consider the difference between how we imagined rockets, and how they turned out to be:

The future's gonna be awesome! It's gonna be awesome, it's gonna be awesome, it's gonna be -


The minimal, aerodynamic curve is a massively important part of our intuitive grasp of the beauty of functional objects. All functional objects are more recognizably beautiful if they:

a. are simple
b. incorporate the minimal curve


Well, the simplicity is obvious - it is easier to understand the function of a thing if the thing is simple in form. It limits what it could be for.

The minimal curve can be justified analytically in terms of the optimization for minimal wind and water resistance, and we do see it everywhere, from the bellies of birds to the backs of fish. But it is such a profound factor in our interpretation of beauty that I'm going to go ahead and call neurology. The preference has that irrational, disproportionate, gut intensity that is the hallmark of something we have a dedicated circuit for in our brains.

Don't believe me? Let me expose you to something from the master of turning our gut against itself: David Cronenberg.

Here we have an object from his incredible movie Dead Ringers:

Beautiful, isn't it? But somehow threatening. Haven't seen the movie? Good, it lets me spring Cronenberg's nasty surprise on you. This is one of a set of objects identified in the film as "gynecological tools for operating on mutant women."


Cronenberg and his designer have figured out your buttons for object-beauty: simplicity and the minimal curve. You cannot help assuming that this object is functional, and in its functionality, beautiful. The identification of the function is disturbing precisely because it makes sense - sense at a deep and neurological level which clashes with your conscious, analytic recoil from the entire category.

By the way, horror movies are excellent data sets for identifying neurological phenomena, because good horror movie makers want to push your deep buttons more than almost anyone else.

OK, so where are we? We've identified a category - beauty of functional things - and identified two things about it:

1. its logical properties: it is a category of beauty which pertains to objects that have a function and are adapted to perform that function with excellence

2. its aesthetics: simplicity and the minimal curve

This is all turning out to be quite a bit longer than I anticipated! Why don't we call it a day for now, and pick up where we left off when I've got a little time to continue this discussion? There's a reason I included Farah Fawcett in the post, apart from my wanting to use an awesome gag. I'll get to that next time.

In the meantime, may I recommend this post by Fred Hatt? He is discussing the question of how color is blended - in the picture, by the artist, and in the eye, by the viewer. It's a very interesting topic, and he even references a thing I wrote one time. It pleases me to be able to contribute to his development of his idea.

Until later, friends.


  1. I really love the beauty of functional things. Some of my favorite collections are collections of tools, like the Mercer Museum in Pennsylvania, or the musical instrument collection at the Met. I really want to get to the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. I think part of what makes tools and instruments so beautiful is that, like living things, they evolve. They are constantly being remade, and most of the refinements are to improve their functioning rather than their aesthetics. Indirectly, the aesthetic qualities end up being magnificent. The amazing thing about the evolutionary process, in living things or in made things, is that blind process produces astonishing beauty.

  2. The beauty of functional things is a balance. When the form interferes with the function, it ceases to be an optimal design.

    In his book The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda makes a distinction between art and design: "While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear."

    BTW, Garth's "mirthmobile" in Wayne's World is an AMC Pacer. So you are in good company with your fondness for the vehicle. ;-)

  3. I've always thought that beauty in functional objects always takes a backseat to the function itself. If the car don't run, then the design is for naught, I don't care how easy on the eye the car is or ingenious its design.

    This is what leads me to believe that the concept of beauty really is an aesthetic concept. I would like to call what you were discussing above instead elegance. For example, computer programmers can come up with elegant solutions to a particular problem. But this may take a long time to program and try the computers resources to run. On the other hand, programmers often opt for the "brute force" method: one that is clumsier and uglier, but easier to envision and quicker at run time.

    Which one is better? The one that is less likely to fail. That is the ultimate benchmark. Notice that elegance has nothing to do with it.

    Sorry to ramble, it's just that I see beauty as something that can have no purpose at all.

    Here's a quick example to sum up: The music of Mozart is beautiful. But I run a shopping mall and play Mozart on the speakers to reduce crime (which does happen by the way) then I have found an elegant solution to a problem. I have given something beautiful a function and hence we interact with it on 2 levels. A) how beautiful it is, and B) how well it discourages crime.

    It goes without saying that if criminals get inspired by Mozart to shoplift, then we have to discard the idea and try something else.

    I have a feeling that most of the bad ideas in the world are highly elegant.

  4. Chris, thank you for bringing in the idea of elegance as a descriptor here. I never would have thought of it. In mathematics, we speak of 'elegance' all the time. Unlike programming, in which various degrees of function are conceivable, in mathematics (my background) it's a binary question - this proof either functions, or it does not. The term 'elegance', therefore, is invariably used for a solution that is quick and simple, though typically not obvious. It almost always involves seeing a problem through a different lens or from a different angle. The result, to a mathematician anyway, is beautiful - here we have proof A, which is complex and messy and wearisome, and proof B, which is so lovely and easy to understand. I wonder if this simplicity is part of the equation?

  5. Fred - have you had a chance to read Wolfram's book, "A New Kind of Science"? He talks a lot about the evolution of complexity from simple rules; he's fairly obsessed with it. And you only really need to read the first 200 pages or so, the rest is extensive technical details and examples. His cosmological conclusions are untestable, and therefore not really science, but the idea is similar to what you're describing. You often bring an evolutionary take to the concepts raised here, which is useful for me, because my own analysis tends toward stasis. So thank you.

    Andrew - interesting, about form beginning to yield suboptimal designs as it gets less interested in function. And thanks for the great quotation! Also, I'm glad to be in the venerable company of Garth. I had no idea!

    Chris, with Synamore, I thank you for raising the concept of elegance. I don't think of beauty as an end in itself, although to me it, like art, is close to that kind of self-justification. You raise several properties: elegance, beauty, functionality. I think you're saying that elegance and beauty are covered by aesthetic laws, but that the aesthetic laws are not defined as functions of functionality, which is indifferent to this concern. I also think you're saying that elegance is an aesthetic tendency of the functional, but is also possible in the non-functional and not necessarily found in all that is functional. And that beauty can be distinguished from elegance in that it has no further goal apart from itself, whereas elegance is a marker of the functional. Or have I got it mixed up? Anyhow, it's not far different from how I'm thinking, but it seems like a useful angle of attack.

    I think Synamore adds to the evaluation of elegance in her note that mathematicians find the elegant beautiful. In fact, I believe we all do. I don't think I have anything useful to add beyond that, but thank you for weighing in, S.