“Beauty as the height of aesthetic achievement has fallen out of favor,” designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh declare in the intro to Beauty (2018), a book that is equal parts history, analysis, and visual splendor. In it, they argue that designers, artists, and architects no longer use beauty as the lodestar of their work, and often avoid the word altogether. “At one time a universal aspiration, the pursuit of beauty came to a crash landing at the beginning of the 20th century,” Sagmeister and Walsh write.
“We believe this rejection of beauty is utterly stupid,” they continue. “Beauty is the dose of humanity that makes our lives better.” The pair, darlings of the intersecting worlds of art, design, and culture—clients of their firm span Snapchat, Vitra, the Guggenheim
, and the Olympic committee—lament how modernist principles have been diluted in contemporary design, where function is favored over individuality, resulting in a lack of diversity, or, in their words, “a psychotic sameness.”
In their sweeping treatise, Sagmeister and Walsh examine what beauty is. They ask: Who does beauty better, nature or humans? Do humans instinctively recognize it? (Science points to yes.) They distill beauty into features that theorists have agreed upon over time: “simplicity, symmetry, balance, clarity, contrast, and proportion.”
The book traces our pursuit and celebration of beauty back to the dawn of humanity, from the first tools—stone axes that had no reason to be symmetrical other than for aesthetic value—to ancient Greece, where beauty ruled art and philosophy, and to the transcendent experience of light and space in Islamic and Christian places of worship. Indeed, sublimity was the overarching aspiration in art and design up until the 20th century.
Following World War I, beauty became a crisis of conscience, the authors write: “If human beings could annihilate each other using killing machines, what role, if any, should beauty play in our lives?” Thus entered the anti-aesthetic period of ready-made art and the functionality of modernist architecture, as well as ’s
elevation of the commercial. Even today, Sagmeister and Walsh assert, companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Etsy embrace uniformity
So, what do they consider to be the most beautiful works in design history? The final section of the book is an archive of the objects, buildings, and graphic design compositions that they consider the most visually pleasing. Below, we share 21 of them, with Sagmeister and Walsh’s own words.