Aesthetics of Joy has its own home!

23 June 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3rhh5mr

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Aesthetics of Joy has become my main focus these days, and certainly has been the main focus of my posts on this site for a good long while. In light of this, I’ve decided to give the project its own blog, where I’ll be focusing most of my time and energy for the time being. I’ll be taking a hiatus from Sketchbook, but will be posting much more frequently on Joy than I ever did here, so please come visit!

Social entrepreneurship at its best

19 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3lacrjq

bamboo_bike

Just learned about the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, right in my own Brooklyn backyard. Basically, you pay $1000, most of which goes to fund a bike factory in Ghana, and you spend a weekend being guided through the process of building your own bamboo bike. From the story, I can’t help but think that this is an ideal fusion of design, DIY, business, sustainability, and philanthropy, with so many great stories wrapped up in one.

For starters, there’s the fact that cycling’s hot right now, especially given the economy and especially in NYC given the MTA’s impending service cuts and fare hikes (now mitigated, but still a factor). Then, there’s the appeal of DIY. For a large segment of the population, there’s nothing more satisfying than building something with your own hands. I’ve noticed this trend personally, through conversations in passing where people lately seem fascinated by the making aspects of my line of work: the woodworking, modelmaking, welding, etc. I think this is particularly true in a bad economy, where our white collar workforce suddenly has a Billy-Crystal-in-City-Slickers “I sell air” sort of moment. When the tangible output of your work consists of numbers in spreadsheets or bullets in Powerpoint docs, the subjective revaluing of a recession tends make your product feel as ephemeral as clouds. It’s the sort of thing that makes most people want to get their hands dirty and build something, whether that’s with a hammer and a tablesaw, or just a box of Legos.

Building a bike is the perfect outlet for this current cultural craving because it’s just challenging enough to be satisfying, but simple enough that you believe you can achieve it, and at the end you have a usable product. And not just a usable product, but one whose regular use can save you money, make you healthier, and make your feel good about your contribution to the planet.

You’ve also gained a skill, so while you’re paying your $1000 ostensibly for materials and charity, you’re also gaining knowledge that can be applied again and again. People love to interact with companies that teach them something (think Home Depot, Apple, etc.) and it inspires fierce loyalty. Not that many people will be repeat bike-builders, but they’ll recommend it to their friends.

I also love the idea of the connection between the African factory and the Brooklyn Studio. I’m sure it takes a Brooklyn newbie at least 10 times as long to build a bike as an African worker, but this only enhances the development of empathy. And that empathy strengthens the logical connection between the philanthropy and the business. My usual gripe with “socially responsible” business models is that the charity has nothing to do with the business. It’s just charity, and if that’s the case, why pay 10% more to a business to decide who to give it to when I could just keep my money and give it to a cause that matters to me? Those unfocused philanthropy programs don’t do much for a company’s brand value, and in my mind constitute a hugely wasted opportunity.

For me, this partnership between the Bamboo Bike Studio and the Bamboo Bike Project is a model for logically conceived philanthropy that can enhance a brand’s value while increasing attention towards an issue the company cares about.

via Daily Candy

Mining old photography favorites

18 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3zogo4t

I saw the wonderful Walker Evans postcard exhibit at the Met last week and it got me in the mood for midcentury American photography. The image above is Robert Frank, and wonderfully contrast-y and dynamic.

Design-fantasy and design-vanity

15 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3lohmm9

This is a nice bookshelf. Doesn’t it look nice, with its 9 books and its trendy little lamp and preposterously cute little yellow fruit bowl with only perfectly green pears in it?

I’d buy that bookshelf. I’d buy it and take it home, and with this picture in my mind I’d look forward to how nice and uncluttered my space would look once the shelf is set up in my apartment. And then I’d get it home, and lovingly arrange all my stuff in it, and be completely disappointed.

Why? Because I don’t have 9 books, I have 200. I have stacks of magazines I like to keep, and photos of friends and family, and I have random things I like that are not trendy lamps or preposterously cute fruit bowls, but that I like to look at nonetheless. And like most people, I don’t buy 10 pieces of the same kind of fruit all at once.

I know this is a photo from a magazine (Dwell), and that the goal is to sell bookshelves. And for this purpose, the styling in this photo is clearly effective. But the copy alongside the photo suggests that this bookshelf is designed for the way people really use bookshelves, with accommodations for taller and shorter books in different kinds of piles. If that’s really the case, then the promise of this shelf is to make an ordinary pile of crap look orderly and beautiful, which would be a remarkable feat and would merit a lot of magazine space and attention. The photo does nothing to affirm the verbal claim, however, nor does it do anything to educate the user on how they might arrange their stuff to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. If anything, this photo tells us that this is not a functional piece of furniture, but rather a very large decorative element. Like the closet ads that show perfectly organized systems of entirely blue clothes, or pristine kitchens that are gorgeous if you have a full-time staff on hand to wipe the smudges off the stainless steel every hour, these are design fantasies, completely removed from real people and real life.

Designers love beauty. It’s a goal, stated or implicit, of most designers to do work that makes the world more beautiful. But sometimes we fall so in love with the beauty of our own work that we put on blinders to the context in which it will live. We fabricate circumstances to make the work seem beautiful, focusing on how it will look in showrooms and photos, not how it will live in apartments and homes. These exercises flatter our vanity, but they are mostly self-delusion. If we were serious about making the world a more beautiful place, we’d start designing a bookshelf by bringing in a truckload of normal people’s stuff. We’d seek to make the furniture recede and the beauty of the things come forward, or design something that puts the furniture in real harmony with the contents. And once we’d designed this, we’d want to show the achievement with the ugliest mess of stuff we could find. Because if it were truly beautiful, it would shine through whatever we throw at it, and we’d have nothing to hide.

I love… Jim Denevan’s land art

14 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3extcaz

Not joyful, exactly, but wonderful! I especially love Denevan’s process shots. There’s something so charming about art made simply, just a man and a stick, and the results are unexpectedly clean and graphic.

How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3hwoohy

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.

Laconic beauty

13 May 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/449cxts

I’m back! And I have lots of thoughts on joy to post over the coming days. But right now I just want to share the beauty of this wonderful, simple site. It makes me smile every time I type the name into the firefox window: islostnewthisweek.com.

The aesthetics of monsters

14 April 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3aptqst

Extraordinary insight from a NY Times op-ed piece today on the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Monster stories are a projection of our collective anxieties — and that may explain why in the current economic downturn, zombies are starting to catch up with the long-fashionable vampire. Vampires are sleek demons for good times. They suavely leach off society — like investment bankers who plunder outsize shares of deals for themselves or rapacious fund managers.

Zombies are more bluntly menacing. When they rise up, what results is a “zombie apocalypse,” or complete social breakdown. That image resonated in 1968, the chaotic year when “Night of the Living Dead,” the black-and-white zombie classic, was released. And it resonates today, when the banking system teeters on the brink of collapse and once-solid companies like Lehman Brothers are melting into air.

“Vampires are sleek demons for good times.” Yes, it does feel like we’ve no more blood left to drain, doesn’t it?

Green porno

5 April 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3vq3gzl

Is Isabella Rossellini the only woman who can be elegant while humping a giant model of a fly? I think so.

I just discovered her Green Porno series on the Sundance channel, which totally blows my mind. Basically a set of mini webisodes pantomiming in graphic detail the mating habits of insects and sea creatures, Green Porno has it all: snail sadomasochism, 69ing earthworms, nymphomaniac flies, hermaphroditic fish. The sets and costume design smack of lower school plays, giving each minute-long episode an ironic charm. It’s especially funny how she plays the male animal in each mating pair, her silky, feminine voice explaining the unspeakable things she intends to do to her invertebrate lovers.

Rainbow sightings and joy in the natural vs. built environment

6 March 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/432jxag

This morning’s joy discovery: a whole site dedicated to pictures of rainbow sightings! There is something so charming about the artist’s desire to establish a collective forum for appreciating these evanescent displays of pure color.

I think the rainbow is one of the truest symbols of joy. Though we know the conditions that produce it, its emergence is always unexpected, and at any age feels somewhat magical. I think this is because it is a visual disruption of the laws that govern our everyday visual experience of the world.

One thing I’ve been wrestling with lately is the way in which joy is so often triggered by natural events and phenomena, both at the macro and micro levels. How then do we create things that bring joy? But it follows that if joy results from a pleasurable disruption of natural laws, then perhaps there is a parallel in the built environment, where joy results from a departure from the laws that govern the designed world. To some extent, these laws are the same. The built environment resides within the natural environment, so both are subject to laws of physics and to the limits of our perceptual capabilities. However, there are conventions that govern the behavior of the built environment, and perhaps unlocking some of these codes will suggest ways to integrate more joyful patterns of design.

Playing with felt

4 March 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/42x6t49

I’ve been playing around with felt lately. Not really focused on any particular outcome, just sort of thinking with my hands. This is the germ of something still to be worked out, thought it was pretty…

Laura Laine’s fashion illustrations

2 March 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3z9fn6c

Today I’m loving these dark, weird little fashion illustrations by Laura Laine.

Hidden color

1 March 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3r6xs8e

There’s something about a peek of hidden color that is so joyful. It seems just right for the gloomy landscape in which we find ourselves right now. Colored linings and interiors signify a secret pleasure, directed inwards at the user rather than outwards at the viewer.

This coat is from Raf Simons fall collection for Jil Sander, inspired by the ceramics of Pol Chambost, a French artist (a resemblance that is clear from side-by-side comparisons). Interesting, because product designers are often inspired by fashion but you don’t often see fashion inspired by tableware.

What is joy?

20 February 2009 by Ingrid | Share it on TinyURL: http://tinyurl.com/3tap3ks

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into definitions of joy. I have this idea of what joy means to me, and to this project, in my head, but I’m realizing there are differences of opinion. A “joy vs. happiness” google led me to a large number of Christian message boards, where I realized that in some religious circles there is a distinctly different definition of joy. According to a number of these posts, joy is something lasting and spiritual, an inner happiness that comes directly from God. Happiness is externally driven, dependent on things that “happen” to you. (Writers point to the common root hap-, which relates to chance and fortune.)

I can understand this definition, but it is important for me to note that it is completely contrary to my definition of joy. In my mental model, as I think is true for many people, happiness is a state of mind, a general form of positive emotion. Joy, on the other hand, is a momentary burst of positive emotion, triggered by an external source.

Joy also gets conflated with happiness in many writings, or substituted entirely for it. I don’t want confusion, but I’m not going to get the whole world to agree on one definition of joy. What I really need is just to clearly define what joy means in the context of this exploration. So, here’s a starting point, a list of characteristics that define the concept I mean when I refer to “joy.”

  • Joy is a kind of positive emotion or feeling.
  • Joy is physical as well as mental. Joy is also physical, before its mental. (Damasio)
  • Joy is a momentary burst of emotion, rather than a prolonged state of being, like contentment or happiness.
  • Joy is an intense form of happiness, but not as intense as ecstasy or euphoria.
  • Joy is an energizing form of happiness, in contrast to bliss or contentment, which are calming and serene.
  • Joy typically is triggered by an external stimulus, which may be further reinforced by stimulating memories related to joy.
  • But, memory is not necessary to feel joy, because even very young children feel joy.
  • Joy seems to have something to do with expectations. Unexpected positive events are more likely to be joyful than anticipated ones. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy is renewable. The same stimulus can trigger joy over and over again. (Essential, core premise.)
  • Joy, unlike ecstasy, has no hangover. While intense highs of positive emotion can leave you feeling down after they pass, joy usually leaves you feeling better than before. In this case, we might say that joy has a positive hangover, and may have lasting effects on emotional wellbeing. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy has a playful, active quality to it.
  • Joy is often connected with children or a child’s world view.
  • Pleasure is a component of joy, but is not itself joy. Pleasure is part of a lower order, dialectical system (the pain-pleasure responses) involved in homeostasis. Pain and pleasure responses are naturally activated as part of the process of emoting, which is why emotions are (nearly?) always perceived as positive or negative. But, the emotion also involves a more complex series of responses.

The act of writing down my assumptions, beliefs, and learnings about joy was very powerful. Whereas before I felt a little bit lost in the thicket of data, now I feel like I have a point of departure from which to work in testing my premises. Sometimes we hesistate to commit ideas to paper until they’re worked through and clear in our minds. But when there’s still a lot you don’t know, it’s really helpful just to get the ideas out and be able to look at them.