Elegance and Uglyful

This month, our whole office went as a team to the Monterey Design Conference. There were beautiful things galore: Doris Kim Sung’s heat changing metal shades, Came Pino’s incredible façade explorations, a new concept to me: kintsugi , the Japanese art of repairing and celebrating broken ceramics, an idea which excited our entire staff. There were so many avenues and attitudes about being a designer and even a thinker.

At the end of the weekend during Junya Ishigami’s presentation, a word came to mind that you don’t often hear out loud in architecture — elegance.

Architects throw these labels around like crazy: modern, spare, sustainable, clean lines, parametric, honest, design!, clever, unique, client specific, symmetric, connecting inside and outside, different, green, activated, critical, oriented, simple, juxtaposed, and on and on. Many of them are just buzz words like any other profession or industry has. These words can be benchmarks of success, but they themselves are not definitions of success. Each designer must choose their own adventure.

Elegance is a word I value more than I had ever really considered. It implies cleverness and uniqueness as well as simplicity and boldness. Honorableness is overlaid there also – a formidable word to work towards, and one no deserving designer would ever use to label their own work. Actually, elegance is a word that works better all by itself.


In fact, all that fluff I just used to try to explain elegance probably amounts the most inelegant definition of elegant. Can irony be a goal in architecture?

“Uglyful” can be. Ask Merrill Elam. Uniqueness and wackiness that breaches crazy into a new place that has more value than the expected, safe definitions everyone else uses for success. Boring and bad are at the other end of her spectrum.

But each designer must find the way their own mind chases design success, and I can only speak for myself. It’s puzzling to equally value Elegance and Uglyful as directions. Does this mean something? Nothing? Maybe there is some other word in there that resonates with me specifically.

“Sublime” is Merrill’s ultimate. That’s a pretty good one. She says that after 47 years, she hasn’t gotten there yet. I have a long way to go, but I am looking forward to the attempt.