There is something irresistible about the ugly duckling, even before its grand metamorphosis into (spoiler alert) an adult swan. He’s gangly, his feathers look weird, his proportions are off, and every other animal he encounters on his journey notices this and comments on it. The moral of this beloved fairy tale is that beauty and its antithesis, ugliness, are meaningful only in context. The “ugly” duckling was just the victim of a temporary category error, he wasn’t actually ugly.
It’s a question that’s plagued philosophers and artists for centuries: Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? Two and a half centuries ago, the English artist, satirist, and social critic William Hogarth devoted an entire book, The Analysis of Beauty, to its study, delineating six elements that, together, created the right conditions for the ineffable quality to take shape: fitness, variety, uniformity, simplicity, intricacy, and quantity. That several of these qualities—variety and uniformity, for instance—are antithetical to one another suggests that Hogarth was concerned above all with harmony and balance: a little of this, not too much of that.
These principles have worked their way around design throughout the ages, from the simple elegance of a Shaker chair to the just-right proportions of a Gio Ponti desk. But today, among aesthetes in interior design, furniture, fashion, and more, there’s currency in the objects that defy these rules. What are we to make of them?
Consider the English designer Faye Toogood’s recent exhibition at Friedman Benda, “Assemblage 7: Lost and Found,” which draws inspiration from an imagined archaeological dig. Works of mammoth furniture bearing clear evidence of hand-tooling have names like Barrow, Mound, Plot, and Cairn. For a viewer unaccustomed to furniture that looks like this, an internal dialogue not unlike the well-trod response of “my kid could do that” to a Jackson Pollock painting could ensue. Chances are most kids can’t do exactly that, and even if they could, the implication is that by definition kids lack the decades of skill that make an artisan a master.
Toogood’s three-dimensional works in this exhibition are made from oak, a signature material of both medieval and Arts and Crafts makers in Britain, and as the gallery notes, they look as though they’ve been excavated. Curator and critic Glenn Adamson, who contributed an essay to the 2022 monograph Faye Toogood : Drawing, Material, Sculpture, Landscape from Phaidon, tells AD PRO that these works “engage with materiality on its own terms, letting the wood assert itself in a semi-raw state. There’s an idea there of minimal transformation, just getting the material far enough to play the part of a functional object and no further.” They’re chunky, rounded, asymmetrical, and they sport tool marks that are the lasting trace of her every decision about the surface of each piece. Unskilled? Hardly, but there’s something rough about them that a Hogarth aficionado might find suspect.
Avery Trufelman, the host of Articles of Interest and a former member of the 99% Invisible team, knows that there are pockets of surprising beauty to be found in the prehistoric. In 2014 she produced a story about the humble Acheulean hand ax, which, at over a million years old, is arguably the first designed object on earth. Carefully chipped to form a palm-size object, it’s rough but recognizable as a cutting tool of some kind. Or is it? “The intriguing thing about it is that no one knows exactly what it was used for,” Trufelman says. “And I think that is part of what makes an object ‘ugly’: its lack of clarity, its muddled sense of purpose.” It may have been an all-purpose hand-tool; it could have been made primarily for display to suggest sophistication and prowess to a potential mate; it may have been designed as a throwing ax to subdue prey, and it might have been for something totally different.