In praise of irregular shapes and the infinite curve

Sometimes I think my aesthetic preferences are best summarized by my opinion of furniture. I hate contemporary modern furniture. Though I have only a limited knowledge of the design parameters for terms like “modern”, “classical”, and “traditional”, I do know that contemporary furniture is ugly. Consider the sofa. It’s large, uncomfortable looking, and very…square. All modern furniture seems to be very…square. Though I can understand the reasoning for manufacturing square-looking furniture – it enhances modularity and accommodates a variety of arrangements and aesthetic needs – square pieces just end up weighing a space down. The bulky rigidness of the modern aesthetic only looks good in the most spacious of rooms. Perhaps this is why squareness is prevalent in exteriors and in architecture in general. The square needs space in order to thrive.

The square is certainly practical as the primary shape in modern design. When extrapolated beyond the boundary of the square, its constituent lines seem to radiate out in a predictable pattern. Even if we imagine the lines of a square as having an inward direction, they inevitably converge in the construction of another square. The cube is the most basic nesting form. This phenomenon is what creates the sense that squareness takes up space. The outward nature of the square is what lends itself to replication, and as a consequence, the square shape is ubiquitous in design. Squares can easily be stacked, placed side by side, and matched with other square-like and cubical shapes. If one’s aesthetic preferences translate into spaces that promote both connectivity and compartmentalization, the square is the supreme form. One could say that the square is the “form” in conformity if we define the word to mean the optimal and rational choice, the logical and agreed upon conclusion in a world of excessive options.

But how much squareness do people need when most people already live in square abodes, have square work spaces, and engage with predominantly square surfaces, from books to screens to cutting boards? What are aesthetes to do with their spaces in a square world, in a world of ugly furniture? Should we look to the past, to periods when embellishment and asymmetry were favored?

The circle does not present an aesthetic option that, on its own, is anymore preferable to the square. A common assumption about circles/spheres is that they somehow have an organic integrity that their angular counterparts lack. The earth, after all, is a sphere, and many of nature’s designs are round. The circle has become synonymous with harmony. Nothing could be further from the truth, geometrically speaking. In contrast to the square, the radial lines of a circle either converge at a single focal point or expand, each into their own infinity. The circle doesn’t fit with its own kind, much less with any other shape; it is a symbol of disconnection and insulation. It’s no wonder that idioms commonly used to express isolation refer to the sphere – living in a bubble, the bubble bursting, etc.

Personally, I take my inspiration not from the rigid parameters of cubical and spherical shapes but from the unending and unbound S-curve of rococo design, an aesthetic that is examined across multiple forms and historic periods in Rococo – the continuing curve, 1730-2008.

In her essay “The Modern Curve,” Ellen Lupton summarizes the history of rococo, from its origins to the way in which it has been incorporated by subsequent artistic movements. The style is most notably visible in the curves and undulations employed in art nouveau design and in the psychedelic pop art posters of the 1960s, which are derivations of art nouveau. She also compares rococo to modernism as an enduring idea that is propelled into each historical period because it encapsulates a fundamental world view whose relevance is timeless.

“Like modernism, the idea of rococo lives on multiple planes. Rococo is a period style, invented in early eighteenth-century France, that has been explicitly referenced and revived by designers, decorators, and manufacturers again and again since the birth and decline of the original movement. Rococo is also an outlook on life and form that resurfaces more abstractly in the work of many designers who might deny its direct inspiration, or who might see it as just one of many overlapping – even contradictory – currents of influence…The energy and attitude of rococo has continued to live and evolve, like a mutating germ passing through a gauntlet of host organisms. The irrepressible dynamic of the serpentine curve predates the historic rococo movement, and it will surely outlive the practices sketched out in this essay. Within the modern discourse, the curve has been function and simplicity as well as sensuality and delight. Wielding the curve, designers elaborate on form by spinning out complex and tangled tendrils of line and simplify form by subsuming an assembly of parts into continuous organic bodies.”

Lupton emphasizes the point that “although the phrase ‘modern design’ conjures orderly regiments of grids and cubes, the curve has always been at play within its discourse. Modern designers have repeatedly challenged classical stasis in favor of an open, inquisitive organicism.”

It seems that the curve is connected to motion and dynamism, whereas the more defined geometric forms are connected to stasis and rigidness. This observation points to the adaptability inherent in rococo style that is epitome of “the mobile, the ephemeral, the fragmented, and the fictitious,” as architectural critic Deborah Fausch describes.

I’m inspired by the word itself. Rococo. The word curls and uncurls, both when written and pronounced. That Rococo is also a term that has associations with shells, pebbles, and pearls – motifs found in baroque ornamentation – points to the fact that the materials of nature are our primary resource for designing the built environment.

To embrace the irregular and continuous shape amidst an incessant preference for squareness and order, is ultimately to admire nature’s embellishments, devoid of any rigid geometric foundations and so wondrously and abundantly present if we care to notice them.

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