Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial: Beauty From Frivolous to Functional

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BACK IN 2010 the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial broke from a purely U.S. focus to take in the global landscape for its design survey. As such, its latest iteration, Beauty, brings in diverse visions from Johannesburg to Canada, Tokyo to London, and, of course, New York.

“It’s very hard to capture every aspect of human beauty, there’s an amazing amount of variation, and it’s very much in the eye of the beholder,” says exhibition designer Calvin Tsao, of Tsao and McKown Architects. “But there are universal qualities of true beauty that sing to our soul, even if it’s still very culture-based.”

The exhibition, which runs through August 21, focuses on the “sensual experience” of beauty, says Andrea Lipps, who co-curated the show with Ellen Lupton. More than 250 works by sixty-three designers explore the ephemeral subject through seven lenses: extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative.

Lupton explains that the themes arose from designers’ practices anchored in “notions of pattern and play.” Tsao adds that within the seven themes, there’s a “phenomenal amount of texture, scale, and style.”


“There’s attention to the body, but the show extends much more broadly,” Lipps says. Nevertheless, it pays extensive homage to objects intended for the body, such as Sandra Backlund’s crocheted cotton corset-like top that looks like a cross between a matador jacket and a knight’s armor—but is soft, oh so soft.

The show giddily careens from the frivolous to the functional: insanely detailed nail tips by Japanese designer Naomi Yasuda meet modular desktop organizers by Herman Miller. Noa Zilberman’s “wrinkle jewelry” provides wrinkles in gold-plated brass for smooth skin that just can’t wait for the stress lines.Sensible architecture, wall coverings, graphics, and perfume also get their due.

“Often, when we think of design it’s highly functional with certain outcomes,” says Lipps. “But the sensuous experience is just as important and worthy of celebration.” cooperhewitt.org