When I initially became engaged in sustainability research, I was quickly captivated by the aspects of sustainability connected to human behaviour—particularly our lack of connection to the majority of the items we surround ourselves with, and our tendency to discard them without further thought. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the fact that, contrariwise, some objects are important to us—we find pleasure in using them, we take care of them, and we even mend them. It seems that there is a difference between significant and insignificant objects. Therefore, I outlined this initial research question:
Why do we dispose of some things before their use has expired, while others are kept and repaired time and time again, despite their wear and tear?
My hypothesis is that the answer to this question is connected to aesthetics. Longevity is more than wear resistance. Unless the objects that we use, and wear, meet our aesthetic needs, we are disinclined to keep and sustain them. Unless our furniture and garments contain aesthetic longevity, we tend to replace them. Hence, in order for an object to be truly sustainable, it must be attractive enough for users to want to keep repairing and reusing it, and it must meet the human need for aesthetic nourishment. Consequently, the most sustainable object is an aesthetically sustainable object. An object that nourishes our senses and is made to be used. An object that gets better or more attractive when worn and used. An object that decays in an aesthetic way.
In the following sections, I will outline various aspects of my theory, as well as the aesthetic strategy that I have developed in Aesthetic Sustainability, Product Design and Sustainable Usage.
In sustainability debates, the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) are often underlined as a sustainable rule of thumb. However, in my approach to sustainability, I mainly emphasize the importance of reducing. This is not done to underestimate the value or importance of the other two R’s. But no matter how good we are at recycling waste materials into new materials and objects, it still requires large amounts of natural resources to do so. And no matter how efficiently we reuse discarded objects by implementing take-back systems, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that there are too many unwanted things in the world. I recently had a concrete experience of this when, after cleaning out my wardrobe, I went to a second-hand shop in Copenhagen that focuses on supporting low-income families. I brought a large bag of used clothes that I wanted to donate. The women that run the shop were thankful but were also sorry to tell me that they receive far too many discarded clothes, and that they simply aren’t able to sort through and re-sell them all. Their back room was overflowing with discarded garments—discarded garments that, mind you, were still usable and wearable but that were nevertheless unwanted by their previous owners because they somehow didn’t ‘work’ for them anymore. They were ‘wrong’ in some way or the other. Like the garments in my bag, they were unimportant and obsolete since they didn’t provide their owners with aesthetic nourishment.
Aesthetic nourishment is related to the experience of beauty. When we feel aesthetically nourished, we are stimulated by beauty in the context of new or familiar surroundings or objects. Aesthetic experiences are ‘stored up’ in our bodies and minds and can hence be described as nourishing. They ‘build’ us up, and they linger. Designers can help rouse their recipients’ senses and minds and nourish them aesthetically by creating products that are sensorially stimulating and durable—they have the potential of being experienced, continually, as thought provoking, beautiful, challenging, or comfortable. Aesthetically sustainable products are precisely characterized by offering the recipient aesthetic nourishment time and time again.
The nourishing and durable aesthetic experience of an artefact is both visual and tactile. The Greek word aisthetikos, the origin of ‘aesthetics’, means sensation. This meaning is rarely conveyed by the word ‘aesthetics’ today, as it is typically used to connote a visual aesthetic experience. But an aesthetic experience is a sensorial experience, which isn’t solely visually appealing (or beautiful or picturesque); it is also tactile. I use the term ‘texturesque’ as a counterpart to picturesque in order to point to something beyond the picturesque or visual qualities of an aesthetic experience. The texturesque design experience is characterized by tactile stimulation that nourishes and cultivates the recipient’s sense of touch.
A thorough design process is a cornerstone when creating long-lasting objects that may enrich the user’s everyday life aesthetically. Slowness, so to speak, passes both forwards and backwards. Artefacts that have been infused with time and careful considerations—and that have been marked by the hands that literally or metaphorically shaped them—invite users to give them a long life. The aesthetically sustainable object is an object that has been created to be used and appreciated day after day. It is a crafty and visionary thing.
Danish philosopher and sculptor Willy Ørskov (1920-1990) deals with three concepts of time that are highly relevant in regard to exploring aesthetic sustainability: the time of becoming, the time of existence, and the time of being. In my usage of Ørskov’s concepts of time (Harper Chapter 4), they can be applied as guiding principles in relation to the design process. The designer can charge an object with time, and thus seek to create a durable connection between subject and object. Briefly put, Ørskov’s three concepts of time can be defined like this: The time of becoming is the process time, which can manifest as visible or tactile traces in the object; the time of existence is related to the way an object decays or ‘deals’ with wear and tear. If designed to ‘embrace’ usage, an object gets better, or more aesthetically pleasing, as the time of existence passes by. The time of being is the most abstract of the three concepts of time; it is, so to speak, the time it takes the recipient or user to be with an object in order to detect or comprehend it. The time of being can either be of long or short duration. Conditioned by how complex the object is, a kind of ‘inflection’ takes place. Hence, the time of being is associated with the interplay between a subject and an object that the process of detection demands; the focus is the aesthetic experience itself. Prolonging the time of being betrays a potential for establishing a durable or sustainable bond between subject and object, since this temporal extension, and the break it introduces, ‘forces’ the subject to experience a sense of presence. The intense experience, following the experience of a prolonged time of being, tends to linger.
Ørskov’s phenomenological point of view means that he considers physical objects, and what shows itself to consciousness (phenomena), as the most crucial path to insight. The body and the senses, in other words, constitute the most vital point of entry for human beings to navigate and understand the world. And the object (which for Ørskov concerns the sculpture primarily, but which in my interpretation and usage of the terms can also encompass the ‘design-object’ more broadly conceived) is a source for understanding more about life and the world—through the body and by way of the senses, rather than through cognition or reflection. The aesthetic experience based on phenomenological insight is neither intellectual nor founded on thought in any way; instead, it is corporeal and sensuous.
The symbolic side of an object—meaning the connotations that an object might trigger—is, to Ørskov, only a secondary quality, whereas the primary quality concerns the purely physical and spatial existence or presence of an object. As such, it is by ‘being-present-with’ an object that the world becomes available to the subject in a new way, rather than by interpreting its symbolic value.
The experience of beauty cannot be as subjective as it first appears to the person affected by it. If the productive effort to create beauty is to have any meaning at all, then it must be supposed that our experiences of beauty are, at least to a certain extent, shared. […] The artist, the designer, the architect will want to know what he or she has to do to ensure that a public will experience his or her objects or arrangements as beautiful. And to say what the artist has to do would be the task of aesthetics. (Böhme 23)
According to the German philosopher Gernot Böhme (b. 1937), different experiences of beauty are similar in kind, despite their apparently subjective nature, and are, therefore, characterized by a certain universality or by being common to all (or most) human beings. This is probably why we enjoy reading fiction about the experience of unity in the world, or why we get caught up in film sequences about other people’s sensuous experiences of beauty. If there were no similarities between different human beings’ experiences of beauty, it would not make sense that we feel a certain satisfaction characterized by the joy of recognition or understanding, compassion and identification, when exposed to a description of other people’s enlightening, beautiful, or harmonious aesthetic experiences. It is precisely this point—that the aesthetic experience is characterized by being universal, and that it thus (largely) defies cultural and zeitgeist-based differences—that forms the basis of my definition of aesthetic sustainability. Furthermore, this universality is fundamental to the aesthetic strategy that I outline below.
In Aesthetic Sustainability, Product Design and Sustainable Usage, I explore the aesthetic experience and the fundamental division between the beautiful and the sublime, which constitutes the basis for the aesthetic strategy that I have developed in the book. The aesthetic strategy is meant as a tool for the designer to be used in the design process in order to create long-lived, aesthetically nourishing products. The historical division between the beautiful and the sublime indicates that an aesthetic experience is not necessarily linked only to beauty but can also be induced by something unpleasant, unbalanced, distorted, or even the hideous, yet still aesthetically fulfilling. This counterpoint to the beautiful aesthetic experience is defined by the sublime. The difference between the beautiful and the sublime concerns the difference between order and chaos, symmetry and asymmetry, predictability and unpredictability, demarcation and boundlessness, shape and shapelessness, proportion and irregularity, and between the comfort providing the aesthetic experience and the special kind of aesthetic experience that challenges us or breaks our comfort zone. Hence, the sublime aesthetic experience pulls us away from familiarity and the well-known and forces us to be present.
The connection between the beautiful and shape, or proportion and balance, is rooted in ancient times. Aristotle (384-322 BC) describes in his Metaphysics how the Pythagoreans (from the sixth century BC) viewed the world’s manifestations as mathematically structured and determined by numeric relations. To the Pythagoreans, beauty was identical to order; as a result, it was linked not only to the human experience of the world but rather to something absolute, something unchangeable and universal. Beauty was seen as the sum of the world’s harmonious, symmetrical, proportional forms (Jørgensen 29).
In the Platonic dialogue Hippias Major (c. 390 BC), Socrates and Hippias are searching for a definition of beauty, and as part of this search, they try to determine whether a spoon made from gold is more beautiful than one made from fig-wood (Plato 908). Socrates feigns uncertainty. Of course, a golden spoon is finer (and thus more attractive) than its wooden counterpart, but it is harder to handle when eating soup. In the final analysis, the wooden spoon is more beautiful since it is better at being what it is (that is, a spoon)—it is more functional, useful. For Plato, beauty is linked to the good. In this way, for an object to be considered beautiful and, hence, durable, the material must, fundamentally, follow form.
In eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical treatises, the idea of the sublime comes prominently to the fore. The sublime is generally considered as a counterpoint to classic beauty, and thereby as something formless, chaotic, horrific, and alien. The sublime is the antithesis to that which is proportioned, symmetrical, and graceful. The first to name the difference between beautiful and sublime aesthetic experiences is British critic Joseph Addison (1672-1719). However, in Poetics (c. 335 BC), Aristotle had already called attention to the multifaceted nature of aesthetic experiences. Using the concept of catharsis, he discusses the nature of aesthetics, touching upon the curious phenomenon of how human beings are drawn to moments of emotional release—such as bawling at a sentimental theatre play (or movie)—and how they even find comfort in doing so (Aristotle).
An example of one of the eighteenth-century’s pioneering treatises on the division between the beautiful and the sublime is A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful from 1757, in which British philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) connects the sublime to vast, redoubtable (nature-)experiences. Burke suggests that the classical ideal of beauty—as pursued by neoclassical artists, who (referencing the Hellenistic worldview) adhered to symmetry, harmony, and order—no longer includes all facets of the beautiful, and he uses the concept of the sublime to connote everything that evokes aesthetic pleasure, but which falls outside the sphere of classical beauty.
When I started developing the theory of aesthetic sustainability and the aesthetic strategy, my initial assumption was that the most durable expression is easy to decode and appears balanced and in proportion to its message. This kind of expression contains a certain degree of ‘neutrality’ and minimalism. ‘Neutrality’ here is understood as referring to harmonious objects that may appear in many different contexts and appeal to a broad range of tastes; they comprise a kind of expressive or common universality. Furthermore, that aesthetic sustainability is joined to expressions producing a form of pleasure that is founded on the expectation that basic rules regarding symmetry, harmonious colour schemes, and design materials are maintained. This angle on durability is linked to the beautiful aesthetic experience. Inspired by the division between the beautiful and the sublime aesthetic experience, I was—and still am—also fascinated by an opposite, yet related, question: can a sustainable expression be so complex and challenging that it demands a sustained interest in exploring it (for an extended period of time)? Is the most aesthetically sustainable object a thing of such elevated complexity that the user is immediately (and time and time again) challenged and forced to consider its provenance in relation to the surrounding world? Perhaps the pleasure of sustainable objects lies in their ability to disrupt the user’s comfort zone since colour schemes bleed and asymmetrical shapes confront our powers of perception and conception when combined with the use of unexpected materials. Understood in this way, sustainable artefacts possess a multifunctional dimension, in either a practical or aesthetic sense, that enhances their aesthetic flexibility. This perspective is related to the sublime aesthetic experience.
It is important to note that neither approach cancels out the other. The point is rather that each form a different overall strategy for analysing and working with aesthetic sustainability. I usually view them as the yin-yang of sustainable aesthetics. I have named the first approach ‘the Pleasure of the Familiar’ and the second as ‘the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar’.
Regarding the universality of the aesthetic experience (that I touched upon in the beginning of this section, and on which I elaborate thoroughly on in Aesthetic Sustainability, Product Design and Sustainable Usage), I draw, among others, on the perception theory by German philosopher and psychologist of perception Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007). Arnheim considers a natural function of sight to actively select and categorize: for example, oval shapes are spontaneously and immediately categorized as variations on circles. In the effort to order and understand our surroundings, the human sense organs will naturally seek out forms that are easy to recognize and label. In Art and Visual Perception, Arnheim lays out a number of concrete principles for spontaneous universal human visual experiences. For example, it may be that “an unbalanced composition looks accidental, transitory, and therefore invalid” (Arnheim 20), and consequently, designers seeking to satisfy the spontaneous universal human pleasure derived from balanced expressions should work toward creating well-balanced pieces. The human senses search for balance and harmony and will thus be ‘repelled’ or confused by unbalanced pieces.
As a designer, it is of course possible to challenge the universal and instantaneous drive to juxtapose and categorize sense impressions in order to understand them. However, since the human gaze is constantly looking to structure and order its surroundings, by accommodating this drive artefacts can create a high degree of immediate satisfaction or instant pay-off. This immediate kind of satisfaction is connected to the Pleasure of the Familiar and to the beautiful aesthetic experience. Contrarily, challenging the human need to categorize and recognize is linked to the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar.
The beautiful and the Pleasure of the Familiar involve an experience of impeccability, harmony, symmetry, and limitation, as well as an experience of being able to easily comprehend or decode and apprehend a given object. By contrast, the sublime and the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar demand, antithetically, the dissolution of forms, harmonies, and symmetries; this side of the aesthetic spectrum can be accessed through objects or concepts that are difficult to apprehend and decode, or not easily ‘taken in’. The Pleasure of the Unfamiliar is characterized by an almost magnetic and corporeal or sensuous kind of attraction (the fingers just have to touch, investigate, and prod), as well as a bodily and psychological taking-a-step-back-from to recover control through a moment’s reflection and a processing of one’s sense impressions. Herein lies the strength of this form of aesthetic pleasure: the fact that what overwhelms or disgusts us is that much harder to ‘shake off’. The feeling of being in a room with a challenging (design-)object lingers, so to speak, for a while afterwards, and it can be difficult to forget the experience.
The aesthetic strategy is structured around four conceptual pairs that constitute each other’s opposite, meaning that they either provide the receiver with the Pleasure of the Familiar or the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar. The four pairs are the following:
– instant payoff versus instant presence
– comfort booster versus breaking the comfort zone
– pattern booster versus pattern breaker
– blending in versus standing out
Designers wanting to give the recipient an aesthetic experience in line with either instant payoff or instant presence should primarily seek to appeal to the recipient’s senses and bodily presence; these categories are, in other words, based on phenomenological detection. If the emphasis is on either boosting or breaking the recipient’s comfort zone, designers should focus on working symbolic value into the product, and, hence, semiotic decoding. The same goes for the two other conceptual pairs. Working with pattern boosting or pattern breaking is related to the sensuous aesthetic experience, whereas the categories blending in and standing out are more closely associated with either meeting or challenging the recipient’s basic cultural and societal assumptions and the identity providing qualities of design-objects.
In the following section, I elaborate on one of the four conceptual pairs, namely instant payoff versus instant presence, in order to exemplify the way the strategy is built up.
Instant Payoff versus Instant Presence
Seeking to provide the recipient of a design-object with an experience of either instant payoff or instant presence implies that the recipient is either able to instantly detect and use the design-object, or that she is being challenged due to the materials, shapes, and colors used, hence making her suddenly feel very present or torn from her daily ‘hypnotic’ activities. The category of instant payoff/presence is especially useful in the creation of physical objects, as opposed to intangible design-concepts or experience-design, since the focus is on sensuous experiences. In the instant payoff/presence category, the recipient’s sensuous handling of the object is the centre of attention. The focal point of this category is the phenomenological experience of the object itself, rather than the connotations triggered by the object.
No matter which type of aesthetic experience one aims to provide the recipient with—or in what way one strives to nourish the recipient aesthetically—thorough knowledge of the target audience is essential. In relation to instant payoff/presence, it is particularly important to obtain knowledge about the recipient’s bodily or sensual basic assumptions. For example, what does the recipient expect when introduced to a winter coat? Are there certain materials she specifically associates with outerwear? Are there certain colours, colour combinations, or patterns that are generally linked to the product category in question? Only by knowing what the recipient expects is it possible either to meet or to challenge those expectations, and thus to either provide the recipient with a sense-based Pleasure of the Familiar or with the opposite.
Instant Payoff: Accommodating Tactile Expectations
Designers working with an aesthetic strategy that includes instant payoff should basically meet the recipient’s sensuous expectations, meaning the recipient’s anticipations regarding the sensations of the product—how it ‘should’ feel when touched, held, lifted, or worn. A particularly satisfactory instant payoff experience can be triggered by imbuing a product with an immanent or obvious way of using it, thus rendering it transparent. This would imply that the product itself, without the use of supplementary words in the form of hang tags or other such text, can ‘explain’ to the recipient how to use it. As part of the instant payoff experience, the aesthetic quality of an object must be easy to detect as well as how to use the object immediately. This aesthetic category should, therefore, lead to creating unobtrusive and accessible objects of harmonious expression.
The aesthetic experience of instant payoff is straightforward and characterized by an instant connection between the object and the recipient, and, hence, the Pleasure of the Familiar. The recipient gets what she expects, or maybe an even more ‘tailored’ product experience than she could ever imagine.
The aesthetically sustainable object juggles both familiarity (the resemblance of something the recipient is already familiar with and, as such, has seen or touched before) and rejuvenating variation. The rejuvenating or regenerative element can, in relation to instant payoff, be relatively understated and can involve, for example, the use of materials that can easily adapt to the shape of the object, thus fitting the idiom perfectly but at the same time differing slightly from materials that would usually be used in similar objects. Maybe they work even better. Or maybe they are more sustainable. Incorporating an instant payoff strategy into the design process can advantageously include a study of how much renewal an object, such as a coat, a chair, or a coffee cup can hold: How far can you stretch the shape or the sensory qualities that characterize the object and still be confident that it can give the recipient a pleasurable instant payoff experience?
Working with instant payoff as one of the building blocks of one’s aesthetic strategy includes having the following guidelines in mind:
– The product should basically be quickly and easily detected; the usage of it should ideally even be a part of the idiom. The instructions for use, so to speak, must be inherent.
– Functionality should be in focus, akin “the most beautiful spoon is the spoon which is best at being a spoon and hence is made of a material that can actually withstand being used for cooking and eating”. The object should be immediately usable, functional and ‘talk’ to the user’s hands.
– The recipient’s physical and sensual expectations must be met; if the design object appears heavy, it should be heavy, and if the object looks soft, it should be soft.
– Non-complex, symmetrical, harmonious structures are typically perceived as easily detectable and should therefore dominate the product expression in accordance with instant payoff.
– The material must ‘fit’ the shape—or it should have a minimal degree of inertia in relation to the object’s shape.
– The experience of the object should be characterized by a short time of being. It must, so to speak, be easily accessible.
Instant Presence: Challenging Sensuous Assumptions
“The more different temporalities are deposited in an object, the richer and more complex its appearance” (Ørskov 84)
As shown by this quotation, working different time courses into an object will make it appear complex and hard to detect, according to Ørskov—and when working with the instant presence category, complexity is desirable. Hence, if one charges an object with both the time of becoming and the time of existence and simultaneously (or due to this) aims for a prolonging of the time of being, the object-accessibility will be remarkably reduced and thereby the recipient might experience the Pleasurable of the Unfamiliar.
A product that is charged with different temporalities or that appears complex due to, for example, asymmetry or the use of a material that doesn’t seem to match its shape is intrusive. It forces the recipient to stop. It forces her to be present. And the sudden presence is the core of this aesthetic category. Aesthetic nourishment in an instant presence way includes being forced to be present, forced to relate to the object one is facing, touching, or holding, and forced, more or less brutally, out of the daily grind. An aesthetic instant present experience is often characterized by self-awareness; the recipient’s expectations are underlined, and she is thereby confronted with her experiential limitations.
The arts, whatever their materials, pressed forward by the aesthetics of the sublime in search of intense effects, can and must give up the imitation of models that are merely beautiful and try out surprising, strange, shocking combinations (Lyotard 100).
As the quotation points out, according to French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), surprising, strange, or shocking combinations (of shapes, materials and colours) can be effective agents when aiming to pull one’s recipient out of her daily hypnotic chores, or ‘force’ her to be sensuously, physically present. The fact that something (unexpected) is happening can cause the pleasurable instant presence experience.
If the designer works with instant presence as a jigsaw piece of her aesthetic strategy, it will generally include aiming for an extension of the time of being or the detection time—thus retaining the recipient in chaos for an extended moment with the intention of inducing the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar. In order to achieve this, one can work with one or more of the following guidelines as a part of the design process:
– Disrupt universal aesthetic principles for composition and harmony, such as asymmetry or interfering with colour harmonies. Working with such disruptions is a way of challenging the visual sense, since the eye of the recipient is unable to immediately find balance and structure and to capture or conceptualize the object. Thus, the time of being is prolonged.
– Repeal gravity in the sense that the designer can ‘play’ with something that ostensibly looks light when in fact it is heavy. For example, one could create an illusion of lightness by imitating lace or other featherweight fabrics as print on a heavy material—or simply create a hole-pattern in a compact material and thereby visually break its dense surface.
– Redesign focussing on using materials and/or objects in new ways or in new contexts. An example of this could find inspiration in the principles of ready-made art and Surrealism and place objects that belong in one particular context into another, thus experimenting with “surprising, strange, shocking combinations” (Lyotard 100; emphasis added).
– Charge the object with time. By underlining the time of becoming or the design process in the object itself, whilst emphasizing the time of existence, the complexity of the object will be increased and the detection time will be prolonged. For example, by incorporating flexibility or open shapes into the design, or by creating an illusion of wear or decay, several different time courses are deposited in the object. Garments with aesthetic flexibility and inherent changeability in the aesthetics or the expression of the object can challenge the way we use clothes. Incorporating open, changeable shapes into a dress or a jacket is a way of inviting the user to engage in sensuous explorations and a way of prolonging the lifespan of the garment.
I would like to finish this article by answering my initial research question: Why do we dispose of some things before their use has expired, while others are kept and repaired time and time again, despite their wear and tear? A simplified answer could be because the things that are insignificant to us—that we hence discard without further thought—don’t nourish us aesthetically, due to the fact that they provide us with neither the Pleasure of the Familiar nor the Pleasure of the Unfamiliar.
- Aristotle. Poetics. Penguin Books, 1996.
- Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. University of California Press, 1974.
- Böhme, Gernot. “On Beauty.” Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 39, 2010, pp. 22-33.
- Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.
- Harper, Kristine H. Aesthetic Sustainability: Product Design and Sustainable Usage. Routledge, 2018.
- Jørgensen, Dorthe. Skønhed: en engel gik forbi [Beauty: An Angel Passed by]. Aarhus University Press, 2008.
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Polity Press, 1991.
- Plato. Hippias Major. Translated by Paul Woodruff. Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
- Ørskov, Willy. Samlet: Aflæsning af objekter, Objekterne, Den åbne skulptur [Detecting Objects and Other Writings]. Borgen, 1999.