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The Derivative of Beauty Is...

Sunday's Boston Globe has an interesting article about a new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, "Splendor and Elegance," and the owner of the pieces exhibited, the applied economist Horace Brock. Brock is an avid collector of European decorative arts and, apparently, has fine taste. He also has tried to quantify his taste by applying mathematical principles to forms that are traditionally and commonly thought of as beautiful.

Brock contributed an essay to the exhibit catalog that outlines his argument, which Globe staffer Sebastian Smee describes:

Designed objects, Brock writes, can be broken down into "themes" and "transformations." A theme is a motif, such as an S-curve; a transformation might see that curve appear elsewhere in the design, but stretched, rotated 90 degrees, mirrored, or otherwise reworked.

Aesthetic satisfaction comes from an apprehension of how those themes and transformations relate to each other, or of what Brock calls their "relative complexity." Basically—and this is the nub of it—"if the theme is simple, then we are most satisfied when its echoes are complex . . . and vice versa."
There are two key points about design that Brock’s theory seems to completely miss. First, the overworn but still valid maxim: “Form follows function.” If a chair isn’t comfortable, people won’t use it no matter how empirically beautiful. If a breathtakingly stunning concert hall has awful acoustics, music lovers will grow to hate it.

Second, designed objects are, well, designed. They are intended to fulfill a purpose (see point #1 above). As such they exert a certain influence over us and how we work, play, and behave. In other words, designed objects condition us. The designed objects of today prepare us for the design breakthroughs of tomorrow. And I can’t help but think that this conditioning subverts any supposedly universal and mathematically proven sense of beauty, at least just a little.

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