The Joy of Autumn

27 September 2016 by Ingrid

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Most years, I feel like autumn sneaks up on me. The heat gradually seeps out of the late summer days too slowly to notice, and then one day suddenly I’m walking to work and the wind comes up and I’m realize I’m cold! But this year I actually felt autumn arrive by degrees. A. and I spent last week working from a cabin not far from the beach, one of those thin-walled places with no insulation or heat, and only an outdoor shower. (Wifi, though, that essential utility, was there in abundance!) I packed a down vest and a scarf, but for the first few days I was wearing tank tops and capris, having to duck out of the midday sun because it was so hot. I drove to the store each morning for iced tea. In the mornings I wrote in an armchair next to an open window, sunlight and breeze streaming in. By 2pm, when the shade covered the yard, I moved outside with my laptop and sat under a big maple tree.

This routine kept up until about Thursday, when we woke up with cold cheeks, the blankets feeling thin. A morning fire suddenly seemed like a good idea. I put the kettle on the range and packed the wood stove with kindling, still in my pajamas. It seemed too cold to step outside and brave the shower first thing. Still, the afternoons were warm, and the iced tea and outdoor writing ritual continued. By Saturday, the cabin’s walls felt like cardboard. The morning fire had gone from a novelty to a necessity. Outside the breeze smelled of dry leaves. We had crossed the invisible line between days when you seek the shelter of the shade to days when you unconsciously gravitate towards the sun. We had arrived in autumn.

Autumn has always been my favorite season. Something happens to my energy, like blowing on a fire, it ignites with a sudden whoosh! Brisk winds clear out the last of the summer lethargy. Paradoxically, as the days get shorter my stamina (weirdly, now a loaded word!) gets longer. I want to do everything at once.

That autumn should be joyful is somewhat counterintuitive. It’s a slow slide into winter’s barrenness. It’s a full-scale immersion in the experience of decay. Theoretically, that should be depressing as hell. But the way I see it, autumn is also the sign of a year going down in a blaze of glory. It’s a stunning last act, a vibrant refusal to just fade away. If fall had a mascot, I think it would be Iris Apfel or Emiko Mori, women whose auras seem to expand in old age instead of shrinking in the way the world expects. All the color, the scents, the foods: like the finale of a variety show, autumn pulls out all the stops. I think of Wordsworth:

“Wild is the magic of autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.” 

Something I’ve been exploring lately is the idea of bittersweet joy: the joy that mingles with sadness, loss, or nostalgia. A poignant kind of feeling, it’s a mature strain of joy, a joy that is somehow deepened by its imperfection. Many things become more complex with age: wine, houses, friendships. Our emotions do too. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, it’s that moment where the emotions start to become tinged with blue, holding sadness and joy together. As we age, we seem able to hold more contrasting ideas together in our minds, and more conflicting feelings in our hearts. If summer is pure, unadulterated joy, then autumn is a deeper, less obvious pleasure.

I’ll be sharing some of my fall joys on the @aestheticsofjoy instagram this week. Do you have a favorite part of fall? Share yours here or on Instagram with the hashtag #joyspotting.

Flying with Flowers

25 September 2016 by Ingrid

TheAestheticsOfJoy flying with flowers

There’s a thing I do sometimes when traveling that might seem a little silly. It started a few years ago on a trip to Seattle. I was walking through Pike Place market ogling all the gorgeous flowers. It was March so there were a lot of tulips with beautiful greens in big bunches lined up along the arcade. I love visiting farmer’s markets when I travel to see what kinds of fruits and flowers are native to a place, but I never used to buy them  when on the road because it seemed like such a waste. I have a real frugal streak and I hated the idea of paying for something that might not even last 24 hours.

It was particularly stupid to spend money on flowers that day in March. I knew I was taking a redeye back to New York that night, and that the flowers would have to sit in the car through a long day of interviews even before that. But maybe because it had been a rough month for me, maybe because they just were so bright and effusive, I plunked down my $15 and walked out with a giant armful of blooms.

It was a mild hassle to travel with them. The flight was full and so was the overhead, so I ended up sitting with them on my lap the whole way home. That sounds miserable, but actually, every time my eyes opened as I shifted positions in that cramped seat, I looked down and thought, “Well, at least I have flowers.” And surprisingly, they survived looking not much the worse for wear, and they brightened my apartment for a week.

I was reminded of that first trip as I navigated the airport a couple of weeks with a huge bunch of dahlias. Yet again, I was in Pike Place, and yet again I couldn’t resist. Plus, it felt nice to support the farmers that grow all that beauty and truck it down into the city at dawn every day. The thing about flying with flowers is, despite the hassle, it makes up for it in joy. People smile at you when they see a bright bunch of flowers in an ugly airport. The TSA agents and flight attendants crack lame jokes like, “For me? You shouldn’t have!” It lightens the mood all around, and it lightened my mood too. A walk through the airport is no leisurely stroll home from the market in Provence, but the flowers give it like 1% of that vibe. And sometimes that 1% is enough.

Do you have any tricks for making air travel more joyful? I’d be so curious to hear them!

Things to look forward to…

20 September 2016 by Ingrid

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Good things are in the works, my friends, and I’m excited to share them with you very soon. If you’ve ever been frustrated that this site isn’t quite as fast as it could be, or that it’s not quite as easy to share things as you’d like, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Aesthetics of Joy is about to get a big upgrade! We have been working so hard on the new site, complete with a new look, new features, and lots of other improvements. It should be ready in the next couple of weeks and I will be thrilled if you come by to check it out and let us know your thoughts!

And that’s not all. (Can you hear the cheesy infomercial voice?) Once the new site is up, I’ll be sharing more news about something very dear to my heart that I’ve been pouring a lot of love into lately. If you’ve been following since the beginning, this will be particularly relevant to you, I think.

Preparing to launch this new design has meant a lot of reorganizing on the back end, and it’s led me to rediscover a lot of old posts from the early days, back in 2009 when I had way more questions than answers, when I was navigating on intuition and every new discovery blew my mind. I’ve had moments where I’ve thought, “Wait, I wrote this?” and others where I remember the words like I just put them down yesterday. I’m struck by the way that blogging back then had an ease and an immediacy to it. There was no Pinterest yet, no Instagram — this was both of those things for me. I saw something great, and I turned right around and shared it.

In the years since I started, blogs have become professionalized and ad-sponsored, staffed with stylists and photographers. I find it’s easy to second-guess myself. Is what I’m about to share beautiful enough? Useful enough? Joyful enough? (And what a silly question: If something is joyful, how could it not be “enough”?) Yet reading those old posts makes me want to go in the opposite direction. I want to write “off the cuff” more. I want to let more of my life out onto these pages. I hope to be as vulnerable, silly, open, curious, and imperfect as I’ve ever been.

So, as I said at the beginning of this post, good things are in the works. And if you’d like something to read in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite posts from the old days:

Have a great week, and (cue informercial voice) stay tuned!

Women and Bumper Cars in Saudi Arabia

16 September 2016 by Ingrid

TheAestheticsOfJoy bumper cars

Driving is such an automatic act for me. If anything, most days it feels like a chore, and I prefer hanging out in the passenger seat playing podcast DJ than being behind the wheel. One of the reasons I love living in New York is that driving is completely unnecessary in my daily life. But when I read the other day that Saudi Arabian women go to “Ladies Only” nights at amusement parks to drive the bumper cars, I was reminded that driving can be more than a means of moving from place to place. It can be a joyful act of liberation.

Forbidden from driving by the restrictive Saudi monarchy, women there must rely on spouses or male relatives to get around. A lucky few who are wealthy might have their own drivers to rely on, and Uber has received big investments from the Saudi investment fund, so there’s a potential for mobility to increase for Saudi women. But drivers and ride-hailing apps address only the functional question of mobility, not the emotional desire to take the wheel and venture out on the open road.

So, women flock to the bumper cars. Not to bump (which is frowned upon), but to practice driving as best they can in loops around the course. The Wall Street Journal quotes 20 year-old Sama bin Mahfooz, who goes to the theme park in Jeddah every chance she gets to practice driving before she heads abroad for university. “Whenever my best friend would hit me, I would tell her: ‘No, let me drive, let me drive!’ ” There’s a video made by Arwa Al Neami as part of a project called “Never Never Land” that shows women negotiating the subtle points of bumper car etiquette in their abayas. Evidently Ladies’ Nights are even more popular, as the park is closed to men and women can shed their black robes and be free to wear their own clothing and show off their hairstyles.

Reading about the pleasure these women find in being behind the wheel has done a bit to rekindle my own enjoyment of driving. I think back to the day I passed my road test and drove straight from the DMV to pick up my best friend to go joy riding. It was June, school had just ended, and even driving down the boring residential roads in our suburban town felt like the most glorious adventure. Windows cranked down on my nine year-old Toyota Camry, our favorite mix in the tape deck, we sang at the top of our lungs, relishing our newfound freedom. Though we could’ve gone almost anywhere we imagined, it’s funny now to remember where we actually went that day. We made a beeline for a nearby amusement park. I can’t remember if we drove the bumper cars.

Source: WSJ
Image: Hernán Piñera, under a CC license

One Question for a More Joyful Day

13 September 2016 by Ingrid

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We were having dinner with our good friends Baxter and Lauren last night, and they mentioned that their daughter Margaux, age 4, has spontaneously started asking a new question at dinner. It seems like a cute, childlike question, but after answering it every night for a week, they noticed it had some surprising effects. The question Margaux asks is:

What was the silliest part of your day?

It’s an endearing question, the perfect example of a child trying to make “small talk.” But what Lauren observed was that being asked to reflect on her day through the lens of silliness made her notice delightful or weird moments that otherwise would’ve just been noise in a busy day. She talked about a moment that she and Margaux had seen a woman walking down the street fully dressed but wearing a shower cap! Moments like that usually disappear in the blur of commuting and meetings and all the rest, but Margaux’s question gave them an opportunity to share the moment with the rest of the family and laugh about it all together.

But this wasn’t the most profound effect of Margaux’s question. Lauren said that some days she couldn’t immediately think of something silly that had happened. Yet when she looked at some of the most annoying or frustrating encounters of her day, she realized that these were actually very silly moments. They were misunderstandings, or lapses in attention — such as when Lauren missed her subway stop one evening because she was focused on an email. When she looked at these frustrating moments through the lens of silliness, they took on a totally different cast. While it was stressful and irritating to miss her stop, when she reflected on it later, it was easy to laugh at it. It changed it from a moment of self-judgment (“How could I have done that?”) to a moment of humor (“What a funny thing! I can’t believe I completely forgot where I was!”).

“How was your day?” is the standard question we ask when we see our loved ones after being apart most of the day. But this question is very unspecific. It skates across the surface, just picking up whatever general impressions are top of mind: great, fine, just ok, annoying. Questions like, “What’s something you’re grateful for today?” are better because they act like a fishing line; they prompt us to recall the good moments and bring them up to the surface. I like Margaux’s question even better because it reframes experiences that might have been negative into positive ones. And just as having a daily gratitude ritual makes you more attentive to the things you have to be thankful for, I imagine over time Margaux’s question might actually heighten your attention to the silly things in life. Because you know you’ll be talking about it later, you actually look for more silliness in the world around you, more joy.

So, what was the silliest part of your day? And do you have any other questions you like to ask at the end of a day?

Photo by Gabby Orcutt

Balloons and the Politics of Joy

30 July 2016 by Ingrid

TheAestheticsOfJoy Balloons Overview1

Whew. It’s been an intensely political few weeks, and I’ve been finding it hard to keep from reading all the news alerts the minute they pop up on my phone.

He said what??

They did that??

Who hacked whom??

It has been alternately shocking and inspiring, distressing and uplifting. An emotion-filled roller coaster, whatever your politics. (I’ll keep my personal views out of it, except to say that watching the first female presidential nominee in America claim her nomination was meaningful to me in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I think this tweet summed it up best.) But I don’t think anyone quite realized how amped up we all were until those balloons started falling.

They’re just balloons, people! Just pockets of rubber filled with air. But falling ten-thousand strong from the ceiling of the Philadelphia Convention Center, they were an inexorable wave of joy. Watching it on the livestream, it felt like a joyful kind of snow. Red, white, and blue orbs mixed with confetti, drifting slowly downwards onto the jubilant crowd below.

Suddenly, the tweets streaming into my feed weren’t about policy or who put who in their place or who said WHAT?! It was a collective outpouring of elation, as photos and gifs of Bill, Hillary, Tim Kaine, and others playing with balloons started pinging around the web. Suddenly, all these serious politicians were playing like kids.

Balloons seem to have this power to bypass all our adult reserve and beckon our inner children to the surface. Their lightness and roundness—like so many other childhood toys (think of beach balls, or bubbles, which do the same thing)—are like a primal invitation to play. It’s almost impossible not to reach out to try to catch them, swat them, or throw them when they’re falling near you. Even watching at home, there’s a pleasure to be gained just from seeing all these serious politicians behave like preschoolers (and not in the name-calling, squabbling way, but in the giggling, playful one).

Maybe it’s just reassuring to know there’s something as deep and human as joy that alive inside our leaders. That our government of, for, and by the people is helmed by people. And not just people who are capable of feeling the indignation that propels them to fight against injustice, or the courage that enables them to make the hard, awful decisions. But people who are capable of feeling joy, and sharing joy. Because in a union that will always be imperfect, joy is the most equalizing, leveling force we have, and it’s far more effective than hate.

For more, check out:

Pride and Joy

30 June 2016 by Ingrid

PrideBalloons Human Etisk Forbund

I watched the various LGBT Pride celebrations fill my social media feeds with rainbows this past weekend and thought about how powerful that flag is. Lots of communities have symbols, but few have the kind of resonance of the rainbow, and the ability to bind a community in a joyful way. It made me curious about the history behind it.

I discovered that the rainbow flag has long been associated with peace movements, even before becoming the symbol of pride. In 1978, the artist Gilbert Baker was asked by Harvey Milk to come up with a symbol for the gay community. There’s some suggestion that Baker was inspired by the rainbow peace flags carried by anti-war hippies. Baker created a design that had eight stripes, each color having a specific meaning (red for life, orange for healing, and so on). Eventually the pink and turquoise stripes were dropped, resulting in the simpler version that’s in use today. The first flags were hand-dyed and stitched by thirty volunteers for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. After Milk was assassinated that November, demand for the flags grew rapidly.

It’s a wonderful choice for a symbol. It has such an inviting quality. What kind of person could hate a rainbow? Rather than create distance out of difference, it reaches out to bridge the divide. And for those who for too long were compelled to hide their identities, it does the opposite of camouflage — it creates a sanctuary that is vibrantly, beautifully visible.

Image: Human-Etisk Forbund (via Flickr, under a CC license)

What is art for?

26 May 2016 by Ingrid

TheAestheticsOfJoy Monet Waterlilies Chichu

“Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate.”

I was struck by this sentence as I was reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy. For those of us who believe the world needs more joy, this idea is itself something to celebrate. The sentence arises as de Botton is pointing out that artworks deemed “pretty” are often devalued by the art establishment in favor of more challenging or ideologically provocative pieces. Yet these are often the pieces that people without deep training in art gravitate towards and hang on their walls. (How else to explain the proliferation of Thomas Kinkade through malls around the country?) Most people engage far more with art on an emotional level than an intellectual one.

De Botton’s argument for “pretty,” which has roots all the way back in his book Architecture of Happiness, is that art can help us live better by inciting emotions that we don’t get to feel enough in the course of day-to-day life. He points out that good cheer is not effortless, and that art can be uplifting in a way that counterbalances our struggles. (Literally, in de Botton’s view, art can be therapy, opening a space for dreaming and hope.) He writes:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope. Today’s problems are rarely created by people taking too sunny a view of things, it is because the troubles of the world are so continually brought to our attention that we need tools that can preserve our hopeful dispositions.

What I love is that de Botton makes a case for joyful art as being at least as useful as “high art,” if not even more so.  Emotions and beauty together have a history of being either maligned as seducing us away from what’s important or derided as trivial. And here we have a succinct argument for visceral beauty as both powerful and beneficial.

In de Botton’s fantasy, art galleries might be constructed with therapeutic objectives in mind, with sections designed to soothe anxiety, pains of love, angst about work, the self, and other stressors. Until then, enjoy your waterlilies! I know I did at the Chichu museum on Naoshima Island, shown above. Like the Orangerie in Paris, this gallery was purpose-built for Monet’s most decadent and dreamy of creations, keeping the light at just the right glowy translucency to let you get lost in the colors.

More…

For more of de Botton’s take on the healing power of art, see the Art as Therapy website
For a great read exploring the evolutionary origins of our attraction to art: The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton

Four joyful design trends to watch

17 May 2016 by Ingrid

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Independent design is having a pretty great moment. So much experimentation and collaboration. Yesterday I managed to sneak out for a bit to catch the tail end of Sight Unseen Offsite, a showcase of mostly independent designers of housewares, furniture, ceramics, textiles, and a little bit of jewelry that runs for a few days every year in May. I made it with an hour left in the show, and I couldn’t be happier that I tore myself away from my computer to go.

Design tends to cycle between three poles: the body, the head, and the heart. When design is focused on the body, everything becomes physical. Designers play with balance, with comfort, with materials. Then we go through a moment where design is focused on the head, and everything becomes an intellectual exercise. Designs become thought experiments, expressions of ideologies. And then there are the sweet moments when design is all “heart.” It leads with the emotions, with color, texture, and form.

What I saw today, and what I’ve been seeing in fashion as well, is that design is in that “heart” moment, full of vibrant, exuberant energy. Occasionally it can get a little samey-samey, with the embrace of Memphis-style motifs (more on that below) appearing on everything, but overall it is hopeful to see so many independent designers thriving by putting joy out into the world.

Here are my favorite finds, and four joyful trends to keep an eye on.

1AestheticsOfJoy PigmentNotPaint

1. Pigment, not paint

I saw a lot of designers using pigments to color materials intrinsically, rather than paint them. What this means is subtle colors with satin finishes and unique textural treatments. One of the things I like about this method is that it creates unpredictable, one-of-a-kind pieces because different colored materials can be mixed or layered. For example, I love Felt+Fat’s swirled porcelain plates (1), which are being snapped up by chefs because they make an incomparable canvas for inventive cuisine.

See also: Elyse Graham’s layered plaster vessels (2) and side tables from M Material (3), which are made from tinted layered cement.

3AestheticsOfJoy Neo Memphis

2. Neo-Memphis

The revival of Memphis style, the Italian design movement from the 80s full of geometric shapes and bright colors, was heralded in 2014 by design writer Alissa Walker. (She describes it as PeeWee’s Playhouse meets Miami Vice, which is kind of an amazing summary.) Two years later, it feels like the neo-Memphis movement has fully taken root and designers are ratcheting up the squiggly, zigzag, confetti-like patterns with even more color and layering. Case in point: these towels, cushions, and clothes by DusenDusen (3, 5).

See also: Studio Proba x Chiaozza’s Suspended Confetti installation (2), The Granite’s ceramics (1), and the Block Party seating by Print All Over Me x Various Projects (4).

4AestheticsOfJoy QuirkyGeometries

3. Quirky geometries

The other way Memphis is cropping up is in the quirky geometries that designers are embracing. Aelfie’s op-art patterned polygonal stools (4) were one example, Merve Kahraman’s circle and semi-circle chair and mirror design (2) are another.

See also: Zoe Mowat’s brush study (1), a part of an excellent group show on reinterpreted Shaker design, and the playful face vases by Saint Karen (3).

2AestheticsOfJoy Dusty Brights

4. Dusty brights

Lastly, an observation on color. I tend to favor bright, saturated colors over greyed out, muddy ones, but right now there’s a color palette that is like 90% bright with a hint of softness that is popping up everywhere. I love this, especially if you want to use a lot of different colors together. It’s got a kind of sun-bleached, midsummer vibe that is super-livable. One of my favorite examples from yesterday is pretty much everything by designer Dana Haim: textiles, rugs, and even those sweet little watercolor studies of her pattern designs (2, 3, 5, 6).

See also: Baskets by Studio Gorm (1), tableware by Felt+Fat (4).

One of the best things about going to design shows like this is getting to know so many awesome new designers. Who are your favorite independent designers?

Moodboards composed with Trays

A glossary of joys

13 May 2016 by Ingrid

Aoj mbuki mvuki

Njoki shared with me this great piece in The New Yorker about the Positive Lexicography Project, an attempt by psychologist Tim Lomas to catalog all the words in different languages that express subtle and sometimes culturally specific forms of joy. I couldn’t help but love this word mbuki-mvuki, which means “to shed clothes to dance uninhibited” in Bantu.

Mbuki-mvuki may not be in your plans this weekend, but I hope some other joyful things are, whether that’s utepils (Norwegian for “a beer that is enjoyed outside…particularly on the first hot day of the year”), volta (Greek for “a leisurely stroll”) or just boketto (Japanese for “gazing off into the distance”). Happy Friday and enjoy!

Read: “The Glossary of Happiness”
Full list here