Imperfect Beauty

Some designers say forget about balance and straight lines.

The principle is asymmetry, and it's how nature made us.

July 16, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

GLASS ARTIST DALE CHIHULY'S UNRULY FLOWERS TAKE GROWING instructions from some errant strand of artistic DNA. The thrusting Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art finds power in the variable geometry of its parts. The diagonal hemlines of so many summer frocks and camisoles slash through more staid notions of fashion design.

Everywhere, asymmetrical creations belie classical standards of beauty. From a Japanese rock garden to actress Drew Barrymore's crooked smile, the visual universe brims with lopsided masterpieces. Together, these images undermine the airbrushed, unattainable measures of perfection found in glossy fashion magazines, unreformed shelter publications and the minds of those who equate coordinated suits, dishes and lamps with a sense of control.

Asymmetry, says Dennis Carmichael, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects, "doesn't mean chaos. It means a different way of achieving balance."

Nor does asymmetry suggest a lack of comeliness. In her research, Dahlia W. Zaidel, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that facial symmetry is not critical for "the appearance of attractiveness." If "you create a perfectly symmetrical face in the lab, which is what I've done, those faces have very low beauty ratings," Zaidel says. "We never look at perfectly symmetrical faces, never from the minute we are born. We are already looking at lopsided smiles, because smiles are more salient on the left side."

In his blog IDFuel.com, industrial designer Dominic Muren addresses colleagues: "Nature and design have proven that wonky objects can have even more charm, power and adaptability than their mirrored neighbors. Next time you're drawing something up, why not throw symmetry to the wind."

Increasingly, asymmetry is the objective of designers who are guided, as industrial designer Muren is, by the ethos of sustainable living.

Also influential are the principles of imperfection revered in Japanese culture and the rededication to modern form found in contemporary architecture and industrial design.

The three sensibilities entwine and overlap in places such as Tree Hugger.com, a Web site "dedicated to anything that has a modern aesthetic yet is environmentally responsible."

They also animate the work at Vivavi, a New York design concern devoted to eco-friendly, contemporary furniture. One of its most popular items is an off-center coffee table by Rhubarb Decor, a West Coast company with an entire furniture line called "Slant."

Tony Kawanari, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, teaches a furniture class according to the Japanese principles of resourcefulness, compactness, simplicity and asymmetry. Symmetry, he says, is "boring as hell."

'A wacky building'

The aesthetic of asymmetry is surfacing in other fields -- and meadows, such as those surrounding the sinuous new home of the U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland. There "was a moment in the 1980s and early '90s when classical architecture had a renaissance and we were doing these classically informed gardens, plazas and streetscapes where symmetry became important," says Carmichael, vice president of EDAW, the landscape architect for the grounds of the new headquarters. Today, he says, "We are in a more organic mode."

The office complex, scheduled to open in two stages beginning this fall, "epitomizes the sea change," Carmichael says. "It is a wacky building. There isn't a straight line [in it]. It has a curvy, whirly, fractured geometry to it. There's no formal language to it at all, except for the functionality. It breaks every rule that you can imagine," he says. "Our landscape is as wild and crazy and wacky as the building. It curves and flies around, up and down the building."

The Census Bureau's adjacent meadows speak to the compatibility of asymmetrical design with environmentally sensitive planning. "There's a resurgence in the whole idea of sustainable landscape," Carmichael says. "The more natural a landscape is, the more it is a retreat from man-imposed order, which is what symmetry is all about."

It's 'less stuffy'

Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor in chief of Natural Home magazine, explored the power of asymmetry in her book, The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty, Clarkson Potter, 2004, $25).

"As a design element, asymmetry provides that kind of good tension where everything is not so predictable, and [where] you know exactly what something is going to look like," Griggs Lawrence says. "Asymmetry is a little bit less stuffy and formal. Symmetry is very formal and classical." With "less rigid groupings, space becomes much more open."

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