FROM THE EDITOR: Utility and Beauty
MIDWAY THROUGH STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S song “Beautiful” in Sunday in the Park With George, there’s a line that seems simple on the surface but is actually quite provocative. George Seurat is standing at the edge of the Seine gazing at the landscape with his mother, and sings (remember, it’s a musical) the words, “pretty isn’t beautiful.” It’s a telling moment. The lyrics go on to say: “Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges/Is what is beautiful.”
Sunday in the Park With George is on the surface about making a painting: the groundbreaking A Sunday on La Grande Jatte that now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. But it is also about the many forces that shape art, about the tension between creativity and commerce, between optimism and pessimism. It is not a spoiler alert to mention that while Seurat worked on this painting between 1884 and 1889, the second act takes place a century later, thus giving full context to both the themes and subthemes.
That short lyric above raises lots of questions—not just about aesthetics, but also about meaning. Perhaps I’m not the perfect modernist—at least if you buy into the idea that neither beauty nor content is inherently important—because I really want both. That is why our first-ever in-depth look at a single subject, in this case lighting, is so important to me. The lights we show in this section are innovative, topical, useful, intriguing—and yes, they are beautiful. I can still remember the joyful moment, almost twenty years ago, when I first encountered Ingo Maurer’s Zettl’z 5 pendant lamp. I recall standing under Random International’s Swarm installation at Design Miami/, and making it swarm. At Design Days Dubai I met Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift, who were showing their nature-inspired Shylight, which simulates (not in real time) the movement of flowers that open and close. I was quite sure the blooms had moved to music, but when I asked them about it, they told me—to my complete amazement—that the music was in my imagination.
We stray from the path in other ways in this issue as well. Our closing page is called Parting Shot, and it is usually devoted to a single important building, one you might know very well or not at all. This issue we bring you a short piece of fiction by the great Richard Russo who is known for Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, among others (I admit that he is one of my favorite writers and that I laughed myself silly reading his lesser-known novel Straight Man). The excerpt we are printing was written in response to a painting by Linden Frederick: the paintings and writings are not so much about modernism as the modern condition.
Which brings me back to Sunday in the Park With George and the strength of a new idea that goes against convention, in his case, the invention of pointillism. Art and design let us see the world—whether it’s the natural or the man-made—in ways we might not have before, but it takes a certain amount of courage and a lot of conviction. And perhaps, as the song goes, an understanding that while the world wants “pretty,” it’s the beautiful that endures.