When we look at buildings, paintings, or even product packaging, we often see attractive shapes and designs, interesting colors, and unique attention to detail that makes a thing nice to look at. But what purpose does that serve?
If you’re a fan of philosophy, you can answer with something from Hegel, Kant, Hume, or others that spend a good deal of their writing discussing the philosophical idea of aesthetics. If you’re a fan of marketing and product design, you can reduce everything to a sales pitch.
When you look at the kind of design and architecture that borders on high art, oftentimes the whole purpose is to create something beautiful. Art and design are often almost purely for enjoyment, but when we cross into things like architecture, interior design, and product design that’s complicated a bit by the fact that all of these things are also practical and useful.
So how do we account for the crossroads between utility and aesthetic? Why make useful things attractive? Surely a chair or a building or a bottle of honey would be just as useful if they were plain geometric shapes that did little more than support the object’s function, so why take the time to make it look nice?
Because We Like To Look At Stuff
The most simple answer is a psychological one. Our brain enjoys and attaches certain chemical releases to different experiences, and you can broadly sort those experiences into two categories.
The first category is practical in nature. It speaks to our more base needs, and the relationship between beauty or pleasure is fairly direct. Sex and eating are the two most obvious examples. We’re attracted to physical features in other humans as a means of stimulating our biological urge to reproduce, we attach pleasure to food that smells and tastes good because it stimulates our biological need for sustenance.
The second category is less practical, but stems from similar psychological roots. We engage in many pleasurable activities that aren’t directly related to biological functions or needs. Sleeping in, playing video games, creating and appreciating art. Essentially, these stimulate a joy reaction in our brain, it produces the same or similar chemicals as the pleasure we experience from biologically directed activities.
Coming back to our main idea of architecture and design, it more easily fits into the second category. It’s rare that a beautiful building or a nice iPhone box is stimulating our biological need for shelter or convenient contact. Essentially, the short answer is, we make things look nice because we like to look at nice things.
Of course, this is all an oversimplification. Exactly how the chemicals in our brain function in relation to experiential pleasure is still a major subject of study and research. In particular, serotonin and dopamine, the two hormones primarily responsible for much of how we emotionally interact the world around us — these two hormones are produced, transmit signals, and interact with our bodies according to internal and external factors.
To simplify again, one of those external factors is beauty. Beautiful design, beautiful people, beautiful scenery. The most simple way of understanding it is that beauty elicits joy, and there’s an incomplete biochemical explanation for why that happens.
Why Make Useful Things Pretty
So there we have it, philosophy solved. Pretty things are nice, and we’re all very easily swayed by brain chemicals. That’s why we like looking at beautiful things. But why incorporate pleasantness into things that would otherwise be purely utilitarian?
How does an ornate castle serve better than a near monolith? Why do we want to paint our walls another color? Why is one skyscraper lauded for its design and architecture, while another is just a tall stack of glass and steel?
Partially, it’s the neurochemical response. As we said, humans are programmed to enjoy pleasant things. Certain shapes and colors have similar effects, we’re psychologically programmed to enjoy patterns. But let’s look at why we do it. Why do we pursue those joyful things when oftentimes it costs more in time and resources to produce.
There are a variety of reasons, from simply enjoying the pursuit to more symbolic or functional explanations:
Status and Symbolism
If we shift from a biological viewpoint to a sociological view, a lot of the examples of beauty throughout history are relatively easy to understand. Status, wealth, and cultural significance all influence why certain architecture is more aesthetically oriented than others.
In a lot of ways, a similar ideology lives on today. Nicer things, which often includes more pronounced and beautiful aesthetics, are still attributed to wealth and status. While churches and castles aren’t necessarily the focus of the day, we do see large corporate offices and places like museums and other culturally relevant architecture with eye-catching designs.
- Castles, Churches, and Symbols
Think of some famous examples of architecture, places that have become iconic. Castles, churches, symbols of a nation. The common theme is status, it’s a combination of practical use and gorgeous aesthetic design that was used to indicate significance.
For these instances, churches and castles were designed to honor and emulate the power and glory of what they housed. A beautiful cathedral to spread the word of God, a beautiful castle to declare the power of a king. Once the merchant class evolved, power and wealth began to shift a bit, and we can see that in the development of a sort of quality gradient that matches pretty well with the wealth gradient.
Essentially kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants had nice stuff. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be preoccupied with materialistic status symbols, as stratified society placed a lot of weight on where you ranked. Intermingling between people of different status was not as common as our romanticized views of the period make it seem.
Likewise, the visual indicators of that social status were more readily apparent. Where did you live in town, what did your clothes look like, what sort of food and furniture and stuff did you have on a daily basis. Craftsmanship, particularly of a high quality, often incorporated expensive materials from skilled artisans who charged a lot for their work.
It all boils down to this: pretty stuff was expensive, the more pretty stuff you had, the more well off you were in society. Thus, the weight of materialism is a heavy factor in how we developed some versions of our modern day understanding of aesthetics.
- Modern Day Equivalents
To some degree, many people still act this way. Modern society is not without its obsession for wealth or beautiful materialism. People still want fancy homes, designer clothes, and businesses in big tall buildings. But let’s set aside wealth as a factor and look at the shift in focus for modern day. Where does the architecture and design go? Why does it go there?
Major corporations, government buildings, houses for the arts, and buildings made for the purpose of impacting society still receive the majority of beautiful design work. In a lot of ways, our desire to signify importance through architecture has not changed, it’s simply become more broadly available to a general population.
In that regard, architecture is interesting as a reflection of society. By observing which buildings get the most ornate designs, we can tell a bit about what the society in question values. Or, at the very least, what values they espouse and whether or not they have the financial means to support that appearance.
Art and Expression
Stepping away from the more symbolic application of aesthetics, we arrive at art. Art and expression are complicated. People have spent centuries arguing about the definition of art, and I’m sure we’re no closer to an answer now than when the question was first asked.
So looking at art in architecture and everyday objects and design, let’s instead consider why someone might make a useful thing beautiful in context.
- Make It Because You Can
Look at the kind of work that appears in architecture exhibitions and you’ll notice that it’s not always designed to be functional, at least not in the traditional context of whatever has been built. You might see a house with no doors, a building made entirely of white, or some other unusual shape, coloration, or construction material.
It’s not dissimilar to a person’s first experience with some of the more abstract forms of art. We imagine that because architecture exists in the physical world and is often practical that it must always be so. To make the comparison, the architecture we’re used to is like still life, or portraiture, or if you live in a cookie cutter neighborhood, it’s like the prints they sell of still life in the museum gift shop.
Similar to abstract art, this form of architecture is meant to push the boundaries of what we consider architecture. You could say that these are studies and abstract applications of form. A rearrangement of the same basic tools and principles that compose the more “normal” architecture. But why do this? Why is this relevant?
There’s no easy answer. It’s like asking why painters paint or singers sing. Sure, sometimes there’s money in it, but more than anything it’s simply an art form in a medium people are less familiar with.
Practically speaking, sometimes these artistic forms of architecture work like a testing ground for more real world applications. A strange bend in the wall, or unusual window shapes and placement in a small art installation might serve as a study for how to use light and glass and new shapes in a designer home, for example.
- Redefining Function and Value
More and more, architects and building firms are being faced with ecological concerns. Construction, the space we take up, and the materials we use are all consumed at the cost of resources. In most cases, that means natural resources.
A major concern for many architects in the present day is how to create new and innovative architecture that also incorporates elements of environmental conservationism. Many of the architecture awards and praise that we see today is for structures that combine the artistic appeal of beautiful design with the functional concern of minimizing waste and pollution.
In the same way that artists designed beautiful cathedrals to bring more attention to the prevailing faith, architects now are building environmentally conscious structures that are amazing to look at for both their aesthetic appeal and their capacity for reducing architecture’s impact on the natural world.
Good design is expensive, and brands and businesses know that people will pay more for aesthetics. This is, again, where product packaging and the beautification of everyday objects and buildings becomes more apparent.
The amount of time and detail that goes into developing a brand (think icons, logos, etc) is immense, and companies go through a great deal of effort to ensure that their brand is attached to aesthetically pleasing images. The point here is to build a subconscious connection between that happy feeling you get from looking at something pretty and the product they’re trying to sell you.
You could take a cynical view here, and that’s fair. Beautiful buildings and objects are made so to entice you, it’s all a big ploy to get more dollars out of your pocket and so on. But, aesthetics matter to us for all the reasons mentioned above, and would we really want to live in grey box homes with everything we use being a featureless, grey object that serves only to fulfill its purpose?
Obviously not. It does answer the question, though. Why bother making useful things pretty? Because we want pretty things, it makes us happy, even when it’s indirect or insignificant. When you go buy a desk lamp, does what it looks like really matter? To some degree, as long as it provides light for your desk, the design is insignificant, and still we go out of our way to choose something that matches our tastes, or the aesthetic of our office.
Final Verdict on Aesthetics
Aesthetics in everyday design and architecture exist because we enjoy it.
Whether you subscribe to the historical reasoning, the artistic explanation, or the purely commerce driven idea, the common thread between them is that we’re programmed to place a high emotional value on pleasant aesthetics.
Aesthetics allow us to create a consistent physical environment that provides comfort, joy, or positive stimulation. By incorporating aesthetics into everyday life through simple objects and common architectural works, we can further extend that positive experience. We may not live in a mansion or be surrounded by jewel encrusted clocks, but choosing a lamp that we enjoy looking at or living in a house with big windows can provide all the satisfaction and visual enjoyment we need.
It’s even one of the major driving factors for us here at Portella. We could make utilitarian windows and doors that simply serve their purpose, but we focus on designs and flexibility that let people find some real joy in whatever they incorporate into their life.
If you’re considering the larger renovations, why not take a look at some of the windows and doors we provide for stunning interior design additions. At Portella, we work with people to make their buildings as comfortable and as aesthetically pleasing as possible. We handcraft meticulously designed steel windows and doors to ensure a good fit for every project.
Check out some of the styles we offer!