Elegance as a Design Aesthetic

This is admittedly one of my weirder blog posts. Because this one is about a chair.

One of the very first pieces of furniture I purchased as an adult was an Eames Lounge and Ottoman. Curvy, modern, black, comfy, and with the slight smell of polished leather—it was a statement of sorts. I was now my own man. I still remember picking it out at the furniture store, getting it packed in my Pinto, unboxing it in my apartment. And now, over three decades later, it is still my favorite place to chill.

The Eames Lounge/Ottoman is culturally iconic. From the Museum of Modern Art to the apartment set of “Frasier,” the Eames chair represents an attempt at the perfect balance of function and form, of utility and aesthetic, of comfort and cool.

One of the concepts that has long influenced my personal aesthetic is the concept of “elegance.” Elegance is a design aspiration where beauty, essentiality of function, and simplicity come together. It can be described as refined, graceful, restrained, harmonious, and effective. The concept is used frequently as it relates to visual and decorative design (particularly graphic and logo design), but also has consequence in literature, science, and mathematics.

Examples of elegance: The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese haiku, Einstein’s formula of special relativity, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the design of Apple computers and software, the Nike swoosh logo, the golden ratio in mathematics, a good joke.

And honestly, I believe God the Designer is like this as well. Think of the many things of creation—a nautilus seashell, the double-helix of DNA, a bird in flight, a seed newly sprouted, the stars in the sky, the atoms in their dance. Many of God’s most beautiful creations are marked by elements of elegance.

When designers, Charles and Ray Eames, created their lounge chair, they pushed hard the limits of manufacturing techniques of that time. They were in pursuit of the perfect “gentleman’s club chair” that fit comfortably “like a baseball in a mitt,” conforming to the way humans naturally interacted with furniture. Did they improve on the chair? In terms of creating an elegant solution, yes, I believe they did. Because they didn’t just make a functional chair. They created a work of art.

Why am I telling you this? I think there is a tendency to believe that good art has to have a degree of complexity. Complexity displays skill and talent, one would reason. But is that always the case? There was a famous and longstanding feud between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, two of the great writers of the last century. Faulkner stated of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.” To which Hemingway responded, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

As a young musician, it was my great sin to needlessly complicate performances with too many notes. It wasn’t until I became more mature in my art (and in my own skin) that I began to realize that music wasn’t just about technique and dexterity, but more so about feeling and emotion.

My Eames chair has been the birthplace of many artistic moments over the years—songs, designs, writings, doodles. It has been the literal seat of my creative muse, and a continued inspiration toward the aesthetic of elegance. Did I use twenty words when ten will do? Did I needlessly complicate the bridge to a song? Does my design’s aesthetic contribute to its usefulness? Did I express with artistic economy?

So how about it? Is elegance an aesthetic you ascribe to? Why or why not?

[Note: If you liked this post, and want to know more about elegance as a design aesthetic, check out my post on the WalkaBout Drum.]

5 thoughts on “Elegance as a Design Aesthetic

  1. Good observation Manuel. Your choice of the word “Elegance” reminded me of a book my son, Nathan, introduced me to. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson. It’s a book I think you would enjoy (I have a copy I can loan you). In it, he gives the backstory to famous and not so famous science experiments from such names as Galileo, Newton, Joule, Pavlov and other names not as familiar to me. In the prologue he writes:

    “… The great experiments that mark the edges of our understanding were most often performed by one or two scientists and usually on a tabletop. Computation, if there was any, was carried out on paper or later with a slide rule.

    “These experiments were designed and conducted with such straightforward elegance that they deserve to be called beautiful. This is beauty in the classical sense – the logical simplicity of the apparatus, like the logical simplicity of the analysis, seems as pure and inevitable as the lines of a Greek statue. Confusion and ambiguity are momentarily swept aside and something new about nature leaps into view.”

    1. My focus is in the hospitality industry where elegance is priority. I adopt that emphasis through every facet of my life (with a firm boundary against crossing over into the unattainable “perfection”)

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