Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The useful and the beautiful are never far apart. -Periander

The ancient Greeks had a saying that the useful and the beautiful were always allied. – Tuckerman

It is rare to think of a tool being designed solely on an aesthetic basis. Consider this handmade Holtey plane made in the UK by Karl Holtey. It is a thing of beauty, a work of art. Yet it, like any tool has to function, so the beauty of a tool may matter less than how well it performs. This leads us to a number of questions. Do the aesthetics of an object make it more amenable to use? Some tools, be it for the workshop or the kitchen are aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, but what does this really mean? Do we as humans gravitate more towards things that are aesthetically pleasing?


A Holtey plane from the U.K.

Prehistoric humans were concerned with survival. That is not to say that aesthetics did not play a role in the things they made. But let’s face it, catching food took precedence over making a stone look pretty. However in their own way many stone tools were aesthetically designed, whether their makers realized it or not. Aesthetic beauty can be traced to the handiwork of their flint implements, a growing appreciation of form, and an unceasing pursuit of symmetry in the tools being built. “Such desires, such “useless” work having strictly no survival value for the race, can only have been due to the development of that aesthetic sense in man which perhaps more than anything else has helped to lift him above the brute.” (Norman Ault, Life in Ancient Britain, p.28).

So what is aesthetic? Aesthetic is concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. The modern use of the term “aesthetics” was introduced in 1750 when German philosopher  Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten wrote a book titled “AESTHETICA”, written in Latin using many Greek words. The word had existed before and meant sensation, to mean taste, or sense of beauty. Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. In the first paragraph Baumgarten defined “aesthetica”:

Aeasthetica (theoria liberalium artium, gnoseologia inferior, ars pulchre cogitandi, ars analogi rationis,) est scientia cognitionis sensitivae”, which roughly translated means: “Aeasthetica (theory of the liberal arts, the lower gnoseologia, the art of thinking beautifully, the art analogy of reason,) is the science of sense perception”.

Aesthetics in the simplest sense has to do with the beauty of an object. Beauty is objective and universal; thus certain things are beautiful to everyone. When you pick a raspberry from a bush, you tend to choose the bright red, firm raspberries, with no apparent visual defects. How do we describe aesthetic beauty? In 1753 English painter William Hogarth described his theory of visual beauty. Central to this was the “line of beauty”, an S-shaped (serpentine) line that excites the attention of the viewer. The handle of the Holtey plane may be what draws our attention to its beauty. Its clean lines, reflective surfaces, and fine detail.


A HSB “OVB” Gage style smoothing plane

Do tools with high aesthetic value work better? There is a condition known as the aesthetic-usability effect, whereby people perceive objects with more aesthetically pleasing designs to be easier to use than less aesthetically pleasing designs. Humans tend to be drawn towards nicer looking things, and use aesthetics to judge appeal and perceived usability. Does a plane work any less better because it is made of wood, and has patina? The beauty in the Gage transitional plane lies both in the two-tone body-handles combination, and clean curves. Which of the planes in the image below do you find more aesthetically pleasing? The new bronze Lie-Nielsen, or the vintage steel Record? Both work nicely, yet many people are intrinsically drawn towards the shiny bronze plane… and yet we are also drawn towards the more amplified curves of the Records lever cap.


Which is more aesthetically pleasing?

Dieter Rams felt that a product is “aesthetic if it is honest, balanced, simple, careful and unobtrusively neutral“. Basically the aesthetic appearance of an object should not be its primary focus. Dieter felt that for an object to be beautiful, it must also do its job properly. A tool must be usefully designed, such that its beauty is bound to its utility. Is a metal tool more aesthetically pleasing than wood? We may be attracted to shiny tools because they have the effect of enticing physical contact. This may be for different reasons – touch is the strongest sense from the perspective of demonstrating reality. We are drawn to reach out and touch shiny tools to connect with them. The problem with aesthetics is that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Beauty involves visual interpretation – colour, form, streamlining, symmetry – qualities that are different for everyone.


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