In the classic conception, beauty is a kind of order, a pattern that unfolds in everything from the arrangement of leaves on a stem to the measurements of a building. It can be seen in Islamic architecture or, for example, in the symmetry of a well-proportioned human body. These patterns model, in miniature, a larger perfection that, to Plato, is divine.
This is the idea of beauty that gave rise to the ‘golden ratio’, a mathematical pattern that permeates everything from the proportions of a Greek temple to the relative length of limbs in a beautiful body. The beauty of these patterns is a proof that nature has been created in an orderly way, which gives grounds to believe in a creator who is perfect.
At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, new gendered readings aligned the beautiful with feminine virtues and the sublime with masculine ones. For example, Shelley’s novel Frankenstein pictured human (exclusively male) creativity going beyond its limits for beauty in the creation of a monstrous creature. The result was that the concept of beauty fell out of favour in twentieth-century experiences of art, morality and religion.
But a return to the appreciation of beauty can be good for business, as demonstrated by Temkin research that shows customers experience brands they perceive as beautiful six times more than those they view as ugly or average. So, as we head into a new century and a renunciation by many designers of the idea of beauty in their work, maybe it is time to think again.