Resilient aesthetics

Resilient aesthetics and resilient beauty; these terms immediately sound like oxymorons, as beauty and aesthetically pleasing experiences and objects tend to connote something fleeting, and something transient and volatile. We are used to viewing beauty as something that fades, and thereby as synonym with newness, with youth, with unwrinkled faces and garments, with fresh flowers and polished tables, with newly painted walls and with undented floors; all of which diminishes with age, usage, and wear and tear.

Loved clothes last. These are a pair of my favourite leggings, and despite the fact that they were definitely not designed to last and not made to grow more beautiful with usage, and that they are literally falling apart, I still wear them. Imagine if these leggings had been designed to be mendable in an aesthetically pleasing way. Or, if they were biodegradable, so that I could burry them in my flowerbed…

But resilient beauty is not smooth and spotless. It is mature and open. Charging a design object with resilient aesthetics is a celebration of usage, and hence it means creating an object, which is made to be used, made to grow better, more beautiful or more intriguing and sense-stimulating with age, as it gets infused with and developed by the hands that touch it and the occasions for which it is used.

“Regardless of when the objects’ optimal state takes place, there is a sense of process applicable to all material existence, and it is generally one-directional. After the optimal state, the objects are considered “past their prime” and we get the feeling that things are “downhills from here,” and most of our effort is directed toward “repairing” and “restoring” the deteriorating objects and “turning back the clock.””
(Saito “Everyday Aesthetics” 2007, p.150)

As Saito points out in this quote from Everyday Aesthetics, our linear way of looking at things often causes us to praise newness and the beauty related hereto, and hence define beauty as something unblemished, flawless, smooth, and pristine. In the linear perspective there is a starting point, and a development that moves towards an end-point (which is either defined by malfunctions and unrepairable or non-upgradeable elements, or by the shifting winds of fashion, i.e. perceived obsolescence). Resilient beauty however is enduring; it is open to development and even embraces the tactile qualities of unevenness, roughness as well as irregularity and decay. Resilient objects are created to be used, and therefore the traces that usage leave must naturally be incorporated into their central concept.

A floor made of ironwood, made to last, made to be used, made to hold wear and tear beautifully.

A good example of an aesthetically resilient object is a vintage object. When garments, furniture, or bicycles for that matter are described as vintage it basically means that the specific object has become more beautiful and more valuable because it has aged and because it has been frequently used or worn. It seems as if the previous owner’s love for the object has left enhancing aesthetic traces on its surface. And hence its beauty can be described as resilient.

But not only after a long lifespan can an object be described as resilient, because it has then, so to speak, proven to be so. New objects can also from their conception be infused with resilience. The design process should include more than considerations on how to attract consumers and convince them to buy yet another new thing. It should contain well-thought through and transparent intentions or even calculations on how to prolong the user-phase, and hence ensure a long product-lifespan.

I used to collect vintage chairs (before selling everything and moving to Bali) – and I would always think of this quote by Marcel Proust from ‘In Search of Lost Time’: “In fact, she could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially that which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity. Even when she had to make someone a present of the kind called “useful,” when she had to give an armchair, silverware, a walking stick, she looked for “old” ones, as though, now that long desuetude had effaced their character of usefulness, they would appear more disposed to tell us about the life of people of other times than to serve the needs of our own life.”

Resiliently aesthetic objects are sharable, durable, and furthermore, they contain a certain heaviness. The term heaviness often connotes something dreary or gloomy. Nevertheless, in order to live sustainably we must invite more heaviness into our lives in this sense: more substance, more stability as well as more significance and more challenges. Resiliently aesthetic objects are charged with heaviness, connotatively speaking; and thereby in relation to the undertones, associations and feelings that they awaken in the receiver. The sensations that are stimulated by an aesthetically resilient object are heavy in the sense that they don’t pass immediately. They linger.

However, the heaviness that the aesthetically resilient object is infused with is also very hands-on in a physical kind of way. The hands-on heaviness that the resilient object encompasses consists of sensuous, material stories; stories about the time that has been literally put into the object (which might even be viewable on the object surface), stories about the time that has been spend conceptualizing and constructing or shaping the object, or stories about the time that is meant to be spend using the object, which are materialized in the newly designed object’s openness to usage. And furthermore, the heaviness of resilient objects is connected to the sublime aesthetic experience.

By emphasizing that it is not only the “privilege” of the vintage object to be resilient (because it has by definition proven to be so), but that resilient aesthetics can also be charged into a new design product, I wish to highlight the importance of making user-phase considerations a vital part of the design process. Furthermore, when I write new design product it is important to stress the fact that a new product could very well be an upcycled product or a product made of recycled materials rather than virgin materials.

We are at a point right now where designing new products can really only be legitimized if these are created to be very long-lived or in other ways improve our ability to live sustainably.

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