Demystifying Beauty: Inspiration for Design | Ellen Lupton | Skillshare

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Demystifying Beauty: Inspiration for Design

teacher avatar Ellen Lupton, Author and educator, MICA

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      What is Beauty?


    • 3.

      Theme 1: Stories of Making


    • 4.

      Theme 2: Polychrome


    • 5.

      Theme 3: Monochrome


    • 6.

      Theme 4: Natural Patterns of Growth


    • 7.

      Theme 5: Chance Encounters


    • 8.

      Your "Dot Challenge" — Create Beauty!


    • 9.



    • 10.

      More Classes with Ellen Lupton


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About This Class

What do we mean by "beauty"? How can you bring beauty into your own work? Join museum curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps for a half-hour class exploring beauty!

  • Go inside New York City's Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
  • Explore 5 themes through dozens of examples from contemporary art and design.
  • Create a beautiful pattern of your own — a surprising and powerful prompt to engage with your own notions of beauty.

This course is inspired by the 2016 exhibition Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, the fifth installment in the museum's signature contemporary design exhibition series. With a focus on aesthetic innovation, Beauty celebrates design as a creative endeavor that engages the mind, body, and senses.

In this Skillshare class, the exhibition is brought to life. See how beauty can move us to ask questions; move beyond the decorative; and drive change materially, structurally, and ethically. Every lesson is rich with visuals, examples, and insights that will transform the way you see both art and the world around you.

This class is perfect for graphic designers, creatives, and enthusiasts alike. All you need is a passion for design, a curious eye, and a yearning to understand beauty.


This class is presented in collaboration with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Ellen Lupton is Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt. Lupton, also a renowned graphic designer, also serves as director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she has authored numerous books on design processes, including the bestselling Thinking With Type; Graphic Design Thinking; and Graphic Design: The New Basics. She received the AIGA gold medal for lifetime achievement in 2007.

Andrea Lipps is a curator, writer, and educator. She is an Assistant Curator focused on contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and is co-curator of "Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial." A contributor to numerous books and exhibitions, she also served as a 2015 Mobius Fellow in Helsinki, Finland and is a visiting critic at both Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Ellen Lupton

Author and educator, MICA


I'm a writer, curator, educator, and designer. Lupton is the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore. I've authored and co-authored many books about design practice, including Thinking with Type, Graphic Design Thinking, Graphic Design: The New Basics, and Design Is Storytelling.

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Related Skills

Design Graphic Design

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1. Introduction: I'm Ellen Lupton, I'm Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. I'm Andrea Lipps, I'm assistant curator focus on contemporary design. This is a course about beauty of inspiration for design. So much of the discussion about design right now, focuses on utility and solving problems. We feel like it's a great opportunity now in the design world, to look at beauty everywhere as inspiration for design practice. So, we're taking, as our point of departure, the exhibition Beauty, Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial. The exhibition itself, focuses on the work of 63 designers from around the world. Ranging from fashion to product design, architecture, graphics, and so much more. We spent three years putting the show together. Talking to designers, looking at what's out there, and trying to figure out what is beauty. What inspires designers today to make beautiful stuff? With this course, we're hoping that you will find inspiration and your own definition of beauty. We're going to do a really simple, really fun project inspired by Beauty and inspired by some of the great objects that are in the exhibition, and in our course. If you are a graphic designer, an illustrator, an interior designer, or any other creative person trying to refine your personal space or your practice as an artist and maker, we hope that you'll find inspiring ideas in the examples of design work that you will see throughout this course and of course, the exhibition itself. 2. What is Beauty?: As designers, sometimes we only think about function. We only think about utility and problem solving, but beauty is so important and design brings to people experience, an emotion, sensuality, texture, warmth, change, movement. These are qualities of things and qualities of the environment that don't simply serve a function or fulfill some utilitarian purpose. They add to the richness of life and that's what we're celebrating in this course and in our exhibition. And beauty is of course tied to the senses. It's about sensual experience. Beauty happens as a response and as we're responding to something that exists as more than just function, more than just solving a problem. As you mentioned, it very much is about surprise or joy or emotion. Beauty can make you ask a question. Beauty isn't just finished things. Beauty provokes our curiosity. It makes us ask why, how did that come to be, why does it look like that, and how long will it last, right? Beauty is often something so fragile, something that's going to blow away like a puff of cotton candy. So, when we think about beauty we often think about change and uncertainty. 3. Theme 1: Stories of Making: We're going to start by talking about stories of making, about designers who have vented their own process for creating objects and images. Tuomas Markunpoika is a Finnish designer who has created this incredible furniture cabinet. The furniture cabinet itself was initially created from an existing wooden furniture cabinet form. Toumas then took his hand cut small steel rings that he welded around the entire form and then set the whole thing on fire. So, what remains are the remnants and this ghostly exoskeleton of the furniture cabinet itself. Max Lamb makes these wonderful furniture pieces by creating his own techniques of manufacture. This is his pewter stool and he makes this by actually going to the beach and digging a hole in the sand, the shape of his stool. So, he drills down holes into the sand for each of the three legs and then he makes a grid for the top of the stool and pours molten metal into the beach. He'd lets it harden, and then he comes back, and he excavates that piece of furniture from the sand. Here you can see him working and discovering his piece, pulling it out of the sand and it's a single whole object. Hans Tan is a designer from Singapore, who is also invented his own unique way of making these incredible porcelain vessels. The project is called Spotted Nyonya. For Hans, he begins with traditional Chinese porcelain wares, that he then applies by hand a dot pattern made of plastic stickers, sand blast away the decoration that is not covered by the plastic stickers. Once he removes the stickers, it reveals this incredible dotted motif. What I love so much about this work, if you have this contrast of texture and color, there's the mat white porcelain that existed underneath the glaze, as well as the glossy colored glaze on top. So, it very much transforms these ideas of heritage and culture through a contemporary lens. To beauty isn't just perfect finished things, beauty can come from destruction, from taking away, from creating something raw, from creating something rough, from finding form out of formlessness. So, we're trying to inspire you to think past pretty things and towards beauty that comes from some kind of story of how it was made. 4. Theme 2: Polychrome: Here we're going to talk about color and one of the questions we asked our designers is what is their favorite time of day. We found that designers were drawn to morning and evening to times of day when the light is changing, when the light is disappearing, when the light is in flocks. If you think about beauty, beauty is light, beauty is the reflection of images into our eyes and that light is always changing, it's always shifting. Here we have this moment by Giambattista Valli who has embraced and celebrated color in this incredible ensemble. He has this ball gown tool skirts that's topped with a very simple piped pajama top and it begins with this rich saturation of red and cascades down into this gradient of color that spills out onto the floor in this cotton candy like pink frothy wonderment. Although the color in this dress is incredibly rich and vibrant, it is still just a single color. It's a color that changes from top to bottom. Exploring a single color is a great way to get yourself familiar with the power of color. Because if I change this dress to blue, or to green, or to black, or to silver, it would change the whole mood of the piece. So, being able to switch in and out of a single color or two colors, is a really great way as a designer to quickly see the impact of color on mood and emotion in a work of design. The work of Vlisco very much celebrates this crazy collage of shapes and geometries. There's this almost up art marble prints that is alongside a neon prints with these contrasting colors and shapes that allow for this incredible explosion of pattern and intricacy on the body. In pattern design and in any kind of two-dimensional design, black is always a color, it isn't simply neutral. So if you look at these wonderful patterns by Vlisco, you can see how the colors are glowing and coming to life out of that black background. This design only has two colors in it, plus black and white and we see it and we see oh it's very complex, very colorful thing but actually the color within is very simple. It's just purple and orange and then you add the black and white and get a complete world of tonality from it from dark to light. These pieces by Scholten and Baijings show how color can be part of materials themselves. These are pieces made from glass and the designers have manipulated and explored the glass to create the surface that is always changing. It reflects light, it becomes a pure mirror, it becomes a sort of milky opaque color. At the bottom of the piece, there's this pure color that reflects light onto the table. So, the whole series is this kind of exploration of color as something that's constantly changing with the material itself, glass. This incredible series of weirdly anthropomorphic sculptures and seats and forms by the Haas Brothers alongside the Haas Sisters. So, what's incredible about these pieces and their use of color is the fact that they're actually making use of this already existing bead. Its a medium, it's material that is a part of an industrial process but these beaters themselves are selecting and choosing to pair these colors in these really fun abstract unconventional ways. They're trusting their instincts within that process of making and beading these objects. These are posters by Richard Niessen who's a Dutch graphic designer, and he's created this spectacular series of posters that are screen-printed in multiple colors. Each one explores a theme in design history and ideas about beauty and making. They are riots of color and pattern and shape coming together. I'm here in the galleries with Richard Niessen and he's going to talk to us about color and how he creates this multicolor effect in his posters. Yes. So, this is a poster series and they're all silkscreen prints, and in silkscreen you work with color separation. So each color is one print run. I started this series with this poster, which consists of three colors, the blue, the yellow and the pink. For instance, when you print the yellow and after that the pink, you get this orange and the blue and the yellow will make the green. So, it looks like there's many colors in it but it's actually only three. This was the first one I made and then the second one was this one and I kept one of the three colors, the blue which is also in here and I introduced two new colors, the gold and the red. Here you see the blue and the pink returning, but I added this sort of minty green and same here it's the green which is mixed here but this is the pure color and then I added the yellow and the purple and then you get this pellet. In the past period it was connected to nature, for instance, and I think it's this when something feels natural in a way or logical. So, when the design fits, I think it becomes beautiful. At least that's how I also limit myself with the colors. It gives me a system in a way and when the system works, something beautiful has to turn out. 5. Theme 3: Monochrome: We've been looking at color and multi-color. Now we want to look at taking color away because so much beautiful design or beautiful photography or beautiful drawing comes from monochrome, from taking away color. Daniel Rybakken, in his lighting design very much embraces a monochrome world. He is a designer from Norway and of course in Norway they experience extreme conditions of summer as opposed to winter. So they live with days that there's almost 24 hours of daylight versus days in the winter that you experience almost no daylight whatsoever. So I often find that some of the most intuitive and thoughtful lighting designs come from these Nordic and Scandinavian designers. And so with this ascent lamp, for instance, what Daniel has done, is taken just a very simple core and by moving the lamp head in a very intuitive natural gesture, it intensifies the light as you move up and the light then decreases as you descend the lamp head along this rod. Whereas the work of Gareth Pugh also embraces the colour black. He's created this incredible monochrome series of garments. What's magical about these pieces is the transformation of an everyday junk material. Black plastic drinking straws is something we don't think about, something we throw away and Gareth Pugh has transformed that into this magical surface. It's like space age, fur. All right it actually makes sound when you touch it and you see it from a distance and it just looks like this big shaggy, magical material, you come up close and you discover that it's something you already know. Black is essential to graphic design. If we think about typography, and letters, and printing, the first thing you think of is the color of ink, the color black. Here's a spectacular book by Non-Format printed entirely in black ink. Even the cover is just embossed into a black surface and every page of these wonderful white letters bursting out of this pure solid black background, and you come in close and experience the sensuality of these letter forms, the scale of them, and how they change from this very thick form to this super thin hairline and all of that is made all the more sensual by the fact that it's just black and white. The work of humans since 1982 is absolutely stunning in its clarity and legibility that is enabled through using just this monochrome of color, white and black. What they've done is taken 288 analog clocks and have choreographed the hands of those clocks to spin and rotate over the course of a minute, and every 60 seconds or so it then unveils a digital readout of the time. So again by focusing in on negating color entirely, we see a very clarified vision of an exploration of time and endurance. So in your work, think about when you want to celebrate color. Color and beauty are so connected, and when you put on lipstick, you're changing the color of your face. Designers often look to celebrate a mix of color to find colors that sit next to each other in the rainbow or across from each other on the color wheel. Designers also seek to eliminate color to create very tight kind of focused color palettes or to simply get rid of it all together and focus on black and white. So color is this amazing tool that we have as designers. It's also very scary because it's always changing and shifting and disappearing from our grasp. It's so much to do with beauty because beauty is change in light in the time of day and the place you are, it's reflection, it's glitter, it's glimmer, it's shine. 6. Theme 4: Natural Patterns of Growth: Beauty also exists in natural patterns of growth. Nature is informed and governed by both simple and complex rules that create these patterns, and shapes, and forms that designers continue to explore and mimic within their own work. Neri Oxman and her team at the MIT Mediated Matter Group have been using 3D printing to create new materials and fantastic new objects for the future. This is a technique they invented for 3D printing glass. So, each of these objects is made from a tube of glass that is laid down in layers by the 3D printer. Think about light again, each of these pieces can docks and conveys light in the most spectacular way. This is a project that Neri and her group did to create a prototype for organ systems that in the future, we might wear outside of our body. Just like the 3D printed glass, these are made from tubes of material that are printed, and that tube could be in theory seeded with a biological fluid that would be able to metabolize energy, to turn waste into energy using microorganisms. In this beautiful video, you can see the thought process behind creating these organic forms. They grow like natural things that have this flowing fluid growing from a single core and then expanding, having these curves that build on each other very much like the curves of our own internal organs. Neri Oxman and her team have created the series of external organs that follow these amazing geometries of natural growth in the body to create a whole series of variations on how that unique geometry of nature can transform itself into something created by human beings, something that you could wear, something that you could use. The work of Jenny Sabin explores nature, new material trajectories, and their impacts on architecture. She's an architect and a professor who practices up at Cornell University. What she's created for the exhibition is this incredible full-scale net pavilion. Now, what you'll notice is it almost takes the shape of what I like to think of perhaps as a lung. It almost has these various cellular-like shapes that bend and move and become larger and smaller depending upon the tensioning that is created within that net structure and the carbon tubing that is used to hold it in place. Again, we see here, this return to light. So what's interesting about this is, the entire net structure is also 3D whole garment net, and the threads themselves are photoluminescence and solar active. So, they collect, they absorb, and they deliver light throughout the course of a day. Kyuha Shim is a Korean designer who's exploring technology, computer algorithms as a way to create beautiful form. He also likes to work with his hands. This is a set of rubber stamps that he created, that translate the shade of black and white and a halftone photograph into this wonderful pattern of dots. Then he hand-prints these typographic pieces, this one spells pixel, that imitate the shade of gray and a pixelated image. They're just spectacular. They bring together this idea of system, the computer system, the system of turning continuous tone images into a pattern of dots. Then he recreates that himself by hand through these beautiful hand-printed images. So, think about creating intricacy with simple patterns and rules in your own work and in your own practice. So, whether it's like Kyuha's marks that accrete and multiply within this system of stamps, or even Neri's glass pieces with their striding geometries that are very much governed by the process of building those forums layer upon layer, you too can explore and create new forms and intricate patterns based on simple sets of rules. 7. Theme 5: Chance Encounters: Designers often discover beauty and surprise and magic when unexpected things come together. These models by the architect, Sou Fujimoto, are everyday things that become architecture. So, by putting these tiny little scale figures next to these ordinary things, it invites us to come in, and imagine ourselves entering the space, entering this landscape. The geometry of this pine cone found in the woods, and forms the design of this real apartment building being built in Montpellier, France. Brunno Jahara makes these fruit bowls and lighting fixtures by collecting plastic from the recycling center. This is a plastic lime, a bottle cap, a little bowl, he strings them together on a single axis, and make something new out of things that are old. Jantje Fleischhut is a jewelry designer, who's German, but she practices in the Netherlands. She creates these abstract compositions of both precious and found objects, and assembles these in ways that would suggest perhaps, coincidence. So, whether it's these slabs of rock, or sponge, that are paired with faceted materials, or whether it's this sun bleached orb of fiberglass that almost seems to sit atop these found plastic rays. There's this unexpected nature and surprise that's given to the way in which these objects are assembled and collage together. Graphic designers have always used collage in their work, and it's really fun now to see them use it in film and motion graphics. These are some steals from the opening titles for the TV show, True Detective, designed by Elastic in Santa Monica, California, and it becomes really magical when you add motion to that. So, whether it's these chance encounters of slabs of rock or sponge or industrial landscapes that are superimposed onto a visage, discover the magic for yourself, and the possibility of what it can mean when things touch or place side-by-side in unexpected ways. 8. Your "Dot Challenge" — Create Beauty!: Often, when we think about beauty, we think about decoration and pattern. Patterns can be very intricate. They can be very complex. But often, they come back to these very simple design elements. Dots are something you see all through our exhibition used in simple ways or used to build up more complex surfaces. I want to challenge you to use dots yourself. Dots are simple. They're universal. Everybody can play with them. When they cluster together and form larger patterns, they become beautiful, they become decorative. I was inspired by these images of cells growing to try to make some dots myself that are organic and relaxed and kind of grow over time. I worked with ink on paper. Ink is really fun because it gives you a unique line quality. It creates a very nice dark line that doesn't look like it was made on the computer. So I started by making these simple little sketches looking at cell structure, looking at wood grain. I started making these patterns that are put together a little bit like the way things grow. When an organism grows, it begins from a single cell, and those cells divide and build up to create the whole thing, to create a whole organism. So I had fun just kind of building this pattern bit by bit, and then creating this very informal dot pattern that you see here. I wanted this pattern to be a little bit more uniform. I wanted the dots to be more whole and more perfect but I still wanted that handmade feeling. So I made a really simple printing method. I just took the lid of my ink jar and turned it into a stamp, and I made this pattern where you get these kind of perfect uniform rings but some of them are broken, some of them have so much ink they fill in and become solid. They start to look like eight balls or eyeballs. I really enjoyed this kind of dynamic play between the uniformity of the size of the circles and then the randomness of how the actual line was created. It is fun to scan these things and bring them into Illustrator and InDesign and play with the color, play with overlapping, create repeats. Here, I started with these really simple inked dots just on my paper, and then I thought it will be fun to kind of weave them together and create a wood grain. Then I colored it, just playing with color is so much fun and created this kind of hand drawn from a pattern in this hand drawn wood grain pattern. I thought it was cool to turn the eyes of the plywood into a different color and kind of take it out of the realm of the ordinary. Here's one where I wanted to play with, this idea of cells developing. I wanted the dots themselves to be more uniform. So I use these perfect dots from the iSupply store and I let them touch and overlap. Again, these cells communicate. They live together. So I started with this bigger black dot and I just put a smaller dot in the middle. I didn't try to make them too perfect because cells aren't perfect. They're all different and they're moving around in space, they're growing and changing. I thought that was fun. I like how, when I scanned it, it has a sort of texture to it. It is kind of fun too to try that on a physical object. This is a beautiful box I saved. I save too much stuff. I thought that would make a really nice gift box if I just put some dots on it. I thought that was really pretty and then I can just do a little lettering and make it personal. It's really fun to use dots to explore color. Color is a really important part of pattern design and it's important for all two-dimensional design. I have fun looking at nature. I take lots of pictures at the farmer's market. I love the color. I love the sensuality of the color. I find, as a designer, it's often better for me to find color in the world than try to think of my own. So here's a picture I took in some peaches at the farmer's market and I thought that would make a nice dot pattern based on peaches. I just sample two colors, a yellow and a pinkish orange. I put those together in a gradient to create this really simple but vibrant color palette. Then I had fun adding a background. Again, just those two colors that I had already selected, and now the color is the background. Then by playing with transparency, you get more complexity. Often, patterns that are designed for textiles are really meant to be more uniform and more soft. They're often used as a background in a room or on upholstery or on curtains or even on a dress where you want to create more of an overall softness to your pattern. So using just a few colors and using transparency is a way to kind of integrate and meld your colors together. Nature is a great inspiration. I wanted to make a little book to keep my salad recipes in. So I just went into my kitchen and I found a beautiful carrot. It's a carrot that's purple on the outside and orange on the inside and I sliced it up and I thought those are some beautiful dots right with this ring in the center, again, like the cell, but now it's the whole organism of the carrot. I boiled an egg. I think eggs are so beautiful with the yellow and the white. I put some olive oil in a dish of vinegar because I love the color of olive oil and the way that transparency, the transparency of the food that you're working with. So I took all these elements and I started to build simple vector graphics based on these pictures. I just started putting it together and making a fun pattern based on salad. I put salad in the background, I put all my slices of stuff together, and this is the color palette. It's really simple. So it's two shades of green, two shades of yellow, two shades of orange. So it's just one color swatch with a lighter version. Here's a little book I made. I have a little notebook and I just made a little dust jacket for it that I can take with me to the farmer's market and collect ideas for wonderful stuff to eat. Dots can be the basis of a decorative pattern but they can also hold content. They can be a really key element in graphic design. This is a book cover I love that has this photograph of the city at night and all the lights become dots and it gives the picture this wonderful abstract quality while we also still really recognize what it is. We see the city at night. This wonderful project by the South African artist Simon Allen, he collects records from South Africa and turns them into these wonderful installations. So here you see this very uniform grid of dots, but you come in close and you see that each dot is actually an album, an actual vinyl album with graphics at the core. So have fun making a pattern with dots. 9. Closing: Thanks so much for looking at beauty with us. We hope you find things to inspire your work here. We've shown you outstanding examples of design by some of the most creative people on earth, and yet they're all working with ideas that everybody can try. Ideas about color, about line, about materials, about how we make things and about how we put things together to make something new. Those are ideas that designers have always used and those are ideas that you can use in your work. We encourage you to go out into the world and explore beauty for yourself. There's beauty all around us. It's just taking a moment to glance up from our phones and absorb everything that is happening around us to appreciate those small idiosyncratic moments of life. Beauty exists everywhere and we encourage you to go out, find it and explore it. So please have fun and please share your work in the projects section of this course. 10. More Classes with Ellen Lupton: