Lately my master’s course has brought back to memory everything I ever loved about elementary school. Two weeks ago we went on a field trip to British Telecom’s dusty archives, just off High Holborn road, 8 stories up and 3.5 kilometers long. We even took a bus. It wasn’t yellow, but I think a double-decker suffices. Tomorrow we are taking another bus to a culinary school. We’ll make a meal — a mushroom risotto — with a hero of mine, Tim Hayward, who is a critic and writer for the Guardian and also publishes the most wonderful food zine called Fire and Knives. Then we’ll go to the home of my course director, Teal Triggs, where we’ll drink tea as we present our essays on Process and converse about our own authorial positions.
But more about that later. In the vain of all things Crayola Crayon and Elmer’s Glue, we had a show-and-tell of sorts in our Monday-morning session. Each of us brought in a design object to talk about and describe how it does or should fit into the Design Cannon. There was a clever, streamlined photo album. A vinyl record. A toy Routemaster Bus. The first graphic novel ever (!!!). A catalog of one-off graphics for one of the most influential ceramic factories in the world. A lipstick. I brought in my A-Z London Guide, the quintessential pocket-sized book of any map you need to get to anywhere you need to get in this silly, windy city. The A-Z (they call it A to Zed) is not subtle or surprising like the photo album that was presented; the garish cover is splashed with a red-and-blue logo that couldn’t get much bigger. The maps aren’t particularly beautiful. Street names wind around the illustrated roads in a way that suggests attractive kerning was sacrificed for curving. The A-Z, for most users, is highly functional but not exactly pretty to read. If I want pretty, I have my London Design Guide, but even that doesn’t make the impossible possible like the London A-Z. Published once a year, you can buy an updated A-Z and see every single street in London — before you get to that street, while you’re on it and afterwards. Other guides do their conventional job; they guide you on the course that gets you from Point of Interest A to Point of Interest B. The A-Z, although filled to the brim with detail, is a blank canvas for your journey across this confusing city.
“Go ahead, get lost,” it seems to suggest. “You might be surprised at what you find.”
I told my class that I didn’t think the A-Z fit my definition of aesthetics, and knowing this, I wasn’t sure how it should fit into the design canon. The A-Z definitely doesn’t outwardly possess the power — beauty or cultural — of a lipstick tube. A lipstick says everything with a twist, implied or physical; it’s there in your hand, on a blotted tissue, in a Thiebaud painting. The A-Z has been around for decades, but it simply is not a beautiful piece of design. Although it isn’t superficially attractive, it is part of a recognizable brand, and perhaps its shelf-presence is enough to fill that “aesthetic” need. Ian Horton, our tutor on Monday mornings, also said that using an A-Z opens up the theory of psychogeography — one determines one’s space through personal interactions. Making a little red dot at my address, 2B Lulworth Road, was a little like finding my house when I fly in from Chicago. It’s a bit of magical knowledge that you keep to yourself. My movements are based from that house, and now from that red dot. Suddenly, I am part of the landscape of my A-Z. While it’s not ideal to view confusing clusters of London from birdseye, the aesthetic qualities of London comes alive when you realize that what you are seeing, in front of you, not on the page, is real and tactile and maybe even beautiful.
After the morning session, I couldn’t get this idea of aesthetics out of my head. What did it mean, actually? I knew I had used the term in several different ways just in one class, and I also realized that I should visit an aesthetician to tame the wild beast that is my soon-to-be unibrow. Obviously, the aesthetics we spoke about in class and a professional eyebrow-tamer were different. It was the perfect excuse to snuggle up with a recently purchased book by Leonard Koren called Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean? Ten Definitions. Now, before you think I just wasted a bunch of time trying to milk a creative set-up to have a snobby conversation on aesthetics, I really didn’t know when I would read Koren’s work until after we had this class. And I actually did snuggle up with it, under a duvet, with a glass of wine and maybe even a hunk of Green & Black’s chocolate, because that’s what I have to do when the Internet won’t be installed for another week.
Anyway, all 94 pages of Ten Definitions is an enlightening, challenging read. Koren is an accomplished design writer/consultant, and reading that he too is perplexed by “aesthetic/aesthetics” is refreshing (and also a little worrisome since the term may never be clear or easy to understand). The book is divided into sections — introduction, origin of the term, 10 definitions, usage in context, notes and captions, all working together in a real attempt to make the vague idea of aesthetics more tangible.
Koren knows his audience. He writes: “If you have this book in your hands, you are most likely a creator or culture worker, who on any number of occasions, has been seized by the desire to wrestle the terms ‘aesthetic’ and ‘aesthetics’ to the ground and strip them of their pretensions.”
He has also done a lot of research. Even in a book no more than 100 pages, Koren’s knowledge and his willingness to share it comes through in all 10 definitions and their usage. The definitions are short; the longest one, where “aesthetics” is defined as “philosophy of art” is nine pages. Interspersed throughout the book are intriguing artworks — photographs, illustrations and pieces of text — that provide visual context and are also explained in the Captions section. Besides listing 10 different definitions of “aesthetic” and “aesthetics,” Koren wants us (the reader) to understand how they can be used in conversation. His section entitled Notes is an explanation of how the book came to be, with every definition of aesthetics used multiple times. He understands that despite his balance of thoroughly simple definitions, it is crucial to see how different definitions work together. “Notes” does a bang-up job of showing us how.
Ten Definitions is highly informative, but what I found most encouraging was Koren’s voice. In buying this book, I knew I was setting myself up for one of two outcomes: Page after page would whiz above my head, leaving me even more perplexed by the aesthetic conundrum OR the writing might actually be modest, humble and creative enough to whisk me away, inspiring me to jump into aesthetics rather than anxiously walk around the cold pool. Koren is transparent about his process in writing this book, and his own curiosities of aesthetics. His credentials, sense of humility and writerly humor make him a trustworthy guide through a very vague world.
Ten Definitions is not a book you can read once and understand. Determined to comprehend these definitions of aesthetics in colloquial usage, I flipped back to the beginning and recited the sections aloud. Simply spending time with Koren’s curated imagery helps cement certain elements of every definition. In many situations, when the word “aesthetic” is used, it possesses several of meanings described by Koren, illuminating the fact that there is no clear route.
Much like the A-Z, there are many ways to reach one point. Though, at first glance, they might cover vastly different terrain, my garish-looking pocketbook and Koren’s volume which sits well on a shelf or table, are useful, encouraging guides to an inscrutable landscape.