We all know beauty when we see it. Whether it’s in a museum, a store window, a movie, or in the face of someone walking by, something stands out and we react instinctively. But who can actually define beauty — what it is, what it isn’t, and who gets to decide.
Beauty defies definition in many ways, so we thought the best way to get an understanding about this ethereal concept was to have a conversation on beauty with professionals who make it their lives to bring beauty into the world.
We conducted separate interviews with three experts from very different backgrounds and compiled their responses below to deepen our understanding about what beauty is, why it matters, and how it’s created.
It’s with great pleasure that we introduce Floris van der Ven, art historian and director of Vanderven Oriental Art Gallery in the Netherlands; Gabriel Tan, an industrial designer, sculptor, and owner of Gabriel Tan Studio in Portugal; and Elizabeth Wilson, a fashion designer and founder of Asiatica boutique in Kansas City, U.S.A.
“I think beauty is the moment when you get triggered by an object or a painting. This feeling gets
triggered by what you see, and this [creates] a very comfortable, pleasant, warm [sensation].”
—Floris van der Ven
A Conversation on Beauty
Let’s start by asking a difficult question: What is beauty? What exactly are we talking about when we talk about “beautiful” things?
Floris van der Ven (FVDV): This is quite a difficult question. I think beauty is the moment when you get triggered by an object or a painting. This feeling gets triggered by what you see, and this [creates] a very comfortable, pleasant, warm [sensation]. If an object can create this emotion, then I think you have absolute beauty.
But that’s a very subjective experience, isn’t it? What triggers one person’s emotions might not trigger another in the same way.
Gabriel Tan (GT): I think there are certain elements of beauty that are perhaps universal—an aspect of beauty that is emotional, so that aspect is quite universal. Of course, with different education and different experiences, people’s sense of this universal beauty also evolves. So I think there is a starting point where people maybe feel that something is beautiful, but as they start to acquire different experiences and different influences, then they may start to challenge this original conception of beauty that they have.
That’s an interesting idea—“universal” beauty. Is there such a thing?
Elizabeth Wilson (EW): I’ve been thinking about what things are universally beautiful. If you think of a sunset or a peony or a rose or something delicious to eat, you’d find it beautiful. So there are culturally beautiful things and there are universally beautiful things. I think most people would find the Taj Mahal life enhancing, or a fabulous sunset, or a beautiful garden. I don’t think anybody would be totally immune to the beauty of such things.
But surely this idea of what makes an object beautiful—it changes over time, doesn’t it?
FVDV: I think so. It has to do with how you develop yourself. You have to be eager and “absorptive”—if you stop absorbing, you’ve stopped evolving. And of course, as you get older, it’s like wine, you mature, and your taste gets better. It is exactly like that.
Here’s another difficult question: what purpose does beauty have? Why is beauty relevant to our lives?
EW: Because it reaffirms the fact that there are some structures in life and some things that people have made that give you pleasure. If you only read about wars and poverty, and immerse yourself in miseries, of yourself or of other people, and never lift your eyes a little higher, that’s a poverty-stricken life. That’s why we have museums, we have concerts, we have nature, we have walks, we have travel, we have all kinds of ways to immerse ourselves in something that is also part of everyone’s life.
“That’s why we have museums, we have concerts,
we have nature, we have walks, we have travel,
we have all kinds of ways to immerse ourselves in something that is also part of everyone’s life.”
Elizabeth, you’ve been very successful at recrafting and repurposing traditional Japanese fabrics into more Western forms. How do you work with these very different “Eastern” and “Western” ideas of beauty in your studio?
EW: It begins with an eye, which is well trained, having seen works of art of all kinds, all over the world. And then the opportunity to travel, to go to Asia, to look at works of art there. Most people are stuck in their own narrow culture. And what brings you a broader perspective is knowledge—whether you’re a historian, or a geographer, or an artist, or a musician—it makes you rise out of your narrow perspective and gives you perhaps a wider view.
And do you actively seek out that “wider view” of beauty for your work?
EW: It’s like deciding what to order off a menu at a restaurant. First you choose the restaurant, then you look at the menu and see if there’s anything that appeals to you. When I go to a museum, I don’t just beeline to the Chinese department, although it’s on my agenda. I want to go and look at everything. I want to look at Islamic ceramics. And I want to look at classical sculpture. And I want to look at American Indian [artworks]. I just want to look at everything, and I want to drink it in, and put it in the mash that’s in my head.
Gabriel, your work often has a functional element to it—furniture and ceramics and household objects that are meant to be used, not simply displayed. How do you make practical things beautiful?
GT: Function and beauty should not be divorced from each other. That’s an old way of thinking. When something is beautiful, it also has a certain emotional quality, an experiential quality—and this is also a functional consideration to a product or a space or a piece of furniture. Because if you’re in a better emotional state as a result of being in that space or using that object, then you perform to a more optimal level in your professional or your personal life. And that is obviously something functional.
“When something is beautiful, it also has a certain emotional quality, an experiential quality—and this is also a functional consideration to a product or a space or a piece of furniture.”
Some people think beauty is an idea that belongs to the past. In this current time, is beauty as important as finding a vaccine, for example, or dealing with political and social challenges, or tackling climate change, or other issues?
EW: I don’t think human nature changes, [but] I think the awareness of things changes. I think beauty will be a component of many people’s lives, if education and exposure to visual man-made beauty [continues]. Knowledgeable immersion in beautiful things—if you don’t have an expert teach you how to look at things, or help you to look at things yourself, pretty soon that knowledge is gone.
GT: I think beauty will become more important to more people. You look at the hierarchy of basic needs—it’s the same thing with products. In the past, people were just concerned about functionality, and anything beautiful would be deemed as frivolous, or they would just assume they would not be able to afford it. But now, people’s standards for what they want to own or possess—the bar has been raised. And people have less space, so the number of products they can actually have in their homes is much less. So they will really need to curate them. Everything that they own will need to be both functional and beautiful.
FVDV: Beauty will never “end”—it will always continue. We live in quite a dark period. I think in times of relative darkness, a lot of beauty is created, and a lot of beauty is strengthened. It may be put to the side to grow, and it can grow at any moment. While you would expect that no beauty would flourish in relative darkness, I think it does. It will come out at a different moment.