Beauty and attitude

Modern design and fashion have tended to skirt around the issue of whether beauty is relevant, but two new exhibitions bring the debate bang up to date. John Stones reflects on whether designers can ever isolate function from the aesthetics of the form

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ So William Morris famously wrote more than a century ago, opening out a tension between function and aesthetics that endures to this day. Art has long since abdicated responsibility for, or even interest in, beauty (unless with heavy dollops of irony), leaving design and fashion to step into the breach.

On the whole, designers shy away from presenting themselves as stylists and beautifiers, preferring to be seen as problem-solvers. Often, by sleight of hand, the founding mantra of Modernist design – that form should follow function – is inverted by making beauty the function. In any case, in the contemporary lexicon of praise, beauty finds itself in competition with other notions such as novelty, authenticity and uniqueness.

If beauty is something that we’re slightly awkward around, it remains highly relevant. And it’s an issue that is thrown into sharp relief by two major shows in London/ Future Beauty at the Barbican, looking at Japanese fashion of the past 30 years, which opened on 15 October; and The Cult of Beauty at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a major exhibition dedicated to 19th-century Aestheticism, which opens in April next year.

What makes the V&A’s show particularly interesting is that it is an archaeology of itself – documenting the rise of a certain view about the aesthetics of everyday objects that sprang up in the last three decades of the 19th century in Kensington and Chelsea in London. During this era, the extravagance of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room or Lord Leighton’s house was quickly transferred to the mainstream and copied for a variety of objects sold by retailers such as Liberty, which happens to be a sponsor of the show.

Stephen Calloway, who is enthusiastically co-curating the show with a colleague from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, freely admits that the exhibition is steering away from the Socialist, utopian aspects of Morris-influenced design to focus on more commercial aspects. ’Aestheticism is, in a way, the first lifestyle movement,’ he says.

’Manufacturers of wallpapers actively sought out Aesthetic designers – it’s a moment of transition from the old world, where manufacturers had their own style, to thinking “We should be doing some of this”,’ continues Calloway. Easy reproduction of images allowed a burgeoning of magazines about the ’home beautiful’ in the 1880s, and a selection will be included in the show.

V&A Museum director Sir Mark Jones suggests that ’the ideas proposed by the Aesthetic movement are current again today’. Indeed they are. This is evident to even the most casual observer strolling around Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea, even if the current peacock-like obsession with luxury and superficial beauty has little of the originality or range of reference of 19th-century Aestheticism.

Another interesting tension inherent in the notion of beauty, and one grappled with by the greatest thinkers of our culture, including Kant, is whether beauty is absolute or subject to the vagaries of taste and accident. The opening up of Japan in the mid-19th century challenged Western aesthetic notions and had a profound impact on painters and designers. Calloway points out some of the lesser-known ideas, such as of Japan as a quaint, untouched and self-contained medieval culture. In reality, Japan’s radically different aesthetic, comprised of fleeting, incomplete or asymmetric elements informed by a Buddhist mindset, had a wide-ranging influence on the West and shifted perceptions of what was considered beautiful. For instance, the V&A will present a Japanese vase decorated with cranes that was shown at the Great Exposition of 1862 and immediately acquired by the V&A. Its designs were directly copied by furniture makers of the day, and pared-down furniture from Japan was also massively influential.

A century later came another aesthetic jolt from Japan – that of Japanese fashion design in the 1980s – which continues to be felt. ’The designers were challenging conventions of beauty, and were very shocking at the time,’ says Catherine Ince, one of the curators of the Barbican’s show.

Instead of the colourful exotic bird designs of the 19th century, everything was uniformly black – or ’designer black’, now a default choice. What was once the garb of the Punk-like karasu zoku, or crow gang, who dressed all in black, was elevated to a highly refined and exclusive style.

Its propagators transcend the normal dividing lines of design. Yohji Yamamoto says he hates fashion, while Issey Miyake refers to himself as a designer rather than a fashion designer. Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garcons and one of the most influential of all creative figures alive today, has compared herself to an architect taking in the bigger picture, of being able to take in all elements of experience.

Yet for all their undoubted conceptual and formal innovation, these designers do, like the aesthetes of the 19th century, ask some very difficult questions about the role of design in our society today, and to what extent it can really differentiate itself from fashion.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion runs until 6 February 2011 at the Barbican, London EC2.
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 runs from 2 April to 17 July 2011 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7

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