Beauty is most definitely not in the eye of the beholder, according to designer and art director Stefan Sagmeister.

“That quote was never mentioned by anyone truly smart because it’s simply not true and I will prove it to you,” he told attendees on Tuesday at the PromaxBDA Conference 2018 in New York. “There’s a surprisingly large agreement throughout cultures and time spans about what we think is beautiful and what is not.”

Sagmeister then showed the audience a slide with several shapes on it and asked them to raise their hands to select the one they found the most beautiful. Of the choices – square, circle, rectangle, triangle, squiggle shape, for lack of a better term – the circle prevailed. The loser was the rectangle.

He then turned to colors, showing a slide with red, yellow, blue, brown, green and purple. Blue was the winner there, followed by purple. Brown received no votes whatsoever.

Anticipating this answer, Sagmeister said, “the ugliest thing you can possibly do is the brown rectangle,” pulling up a prepared slide to illustrate his point.

“So what do architects do? The brown rectangle,” and then he showed several photos of rectangular brown buildings located in cities around the world.

Sagmeister traces the start of functional, but not beautiful, architecture back to Adolf Loos’ treatise Ornament and Crime, which posited that it was “criminal to put anything ornamental on anything lasting.”

Soon after, came a generation of architects who “misunderstood some of those tenants. They created this thing called economic functionalism with this psychotic sameness that we very much have to deal with and suffer from to this very day.”

For example, he said: housing projects and apartment complexes of the type that everyone has seen and no one wants to live in. City planners even went so far as to suggest designing entire cities in this bleak, repetitive fashion. Luckily for most urban dwellers, this trend never caught on.

“The Soviet Union in the 1960s created apartment building factories that they could ship anywhere in to the world,” Sagmeister said. “There was a time when one billion people lived in these places and the first thing they did was completely exorcise modernism.

“There are so many of these buildings and the only reason they were made was to function but the one thing they didn’t do was function. Nobody wanted to live in them.”

Another stark example is airports.

“If you go from Athens to Bangkok to Sofia – the architecture would give you no clue where you have just landed. The best way to figure out where you are is to try to plug in your iPhone. The one thing that’s different in these places is the one thing that people would like to be the same.”

An interesting result of creating spaces with beauty in mind is that it seems to improve both people’s moods and their behavior.

A converse example is New York City’s relatively new High Line Park, which was converted from an abandoned train line on the city’s west side and opened in 2009. Since it opened, there has been almost no crime committed there, said Sagmeister.

Similarly, Sagmeister compared Grand Central Station to Penn Station. Grand Central has soaring ceilings and beautiful classic architecture while Penn Station is purely functional. On an app that shows how people feel are feeling about a place based on their tweets, Sagmeister showed that Grand Central is always green (happy), while Penn is always red (unhappy) – and a few select tweets illustrated even further how people felt about both places.

But people do not intentionally create ugly things, Sagmeister said. Instead, they create functional things without being concerned about whether they are also beautiful. And that’s what he would like to see changed.

“This is not a question between simplicity or thoroughness – 98 percent of everything that’s ugly in this world is not created because it was supposed to be ugly. It was created like that because nobody cared,” he said.

“But things do become better,” he continued. “You see it in things like the High Line. That’s an unbelievable success – in fact, it’s almost a victim of its own success, because it’s unbelievably crowded. Not a single crime has been committed on the High Line in nine years – that’s how functional it is.”

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