It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.
Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.
In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.
Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.
Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.
Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.
These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty. Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).
Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.
As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.
Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.
Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.
Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.
Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.
Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.