Beauty and the eye of the beholder

What makes good design? This question is of no small concern. It bears on just about everything – from album covers to architecture. Looking for answers, in 1993 #Art News magazine queried a slew of famous folks in assorted design fields to name their favorites objects. Aside from everyone’s all-time style choice -- Mies van der Roe’s Barcelona chair -- responses varied, although the gauge was the same. The designers picked things that are simple and straightforward. (More about what they picked in a moment). The thing is that while the objects of their affection weren’t necessarily fashioned for visual effect, but only for ease of use, they turned out be good to look at anyway.

Form follows function on steroids

Architecture design came up in discussion on the fine art website Hyperallergic last week, but in a different way. The discussion was about effective commercial buildings that look like what they sell. Examples included the National Fisheries Development Board Building built in Hyderabad, India erected in 2012 in the shape of a big fish, and the Darkroom, a camera store erected in Los Angeles, California in 1935 contoured like an Argus camera. Today it’s a restaurant. Then there’s the Coney Island Hot Dog Stand in Bailey, Colorado, put up in the ‘ 50s to look like – well, you know. All of which is the stuff of novelty architecture, reminiscent of Old Florida’s roadside buildings that delighted tourists. Examples include Twistee Treat ice cream chain to resemble an ice cream cone, and the gas station in Weeki Wachee, FL formed like a giant dinosaur.

Goblins and gnomes

OK, great architecture, this isn’t, but it added enchantment, a kind of fairy tale quality to all things mundane, which is no small thing. The writer Marjorie Rawlings, known for “The Yearling,” noted the importance of enchanting things in her memoirs of backwoods life in northern Florida: “I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”

The pause that refreshes

So maybe we should chalk up buildings that mimic the goings-on inside them the relief we need from all those banal, anywhere buildings that pass for architecture today. There’s also something else that we need to escape from and from which there may not be any escape: bad design, over-design buildings that conjure up aging actresses who wear too much makeup. And if not festooned to the max, all the buildings in the world that try too hard to be different. Frank Gehry, are you listening?

Here may be good place to look at that list of designer favorites to see what good design looks like: paper clips, safety pins, Thermos bottles, clay flower pots, wire coat hangers, spoons and sewing needles. Clean lines, all. Nothing forced. There’s a moral in there somewhere.