“… there’s a fine line between not thinking enough and thinking too much. Elegance is all about learning how to walk that line on a more consistent basis.” These words from Mathew May’s conclusion to Pursuit of Elegance (2009) reflect a simplicity similar to the four elements he proposes as central to elegance – symmetry, seduction, subtraction, and sustainability.
May defines elegance as creativity or innovation that is done in as simple a way as possible – or, as the Japanese say, through shibumi or “effortless effectiveness.” This type of creativity usually emerges from a creative burst of insight that is stimulated by time away from a problem or enough distance from its subjective content to see it in a fundamentally different way. This elegance, captured in the artist’s language, is like being “kissed by the muse.”
The intriguing paradox of elegance is that it is often more about what’s not there than what is. The momentary pause in a great piece of music. The void in an architectural masterpiece. The absence of a conclusion in a book or movie. These moments of absence take us to another place because the pause serves as a catalyst for seeing something in a different way. When we begin to see in a different way, we see things that were hidden beneath the veneer of the first impression and these may actually be the most beautiful of all.
What is beauty? May proposes that what we view as beautiful is the symmetry of what we view or experience. He substantiates this assertion by citing numerous examples where patterns are repeated,, sometimes in obvious and other times unobvious ways. Obvious patterned symmetry is seen in butterflies, snowflakes, and literary palindromes. But hidden symmetries can also be observed in Jackson Pollock “splatter” painting, self-organizing traffic intersections, or shortcuts across grassy meadows. Sometimes we can’t see the symmetry until we withdraw and view it from a greater distance or when we come closer to the detail of what we are viewing. Regardless of whether it is obvious or not, found in infinity or miniature, it is the symmetry that draws us to observe or gaze in wonder.
The second element of elegance is seduction – generally manifest in things that are mysterious and elusive. May cites the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as one example. There are much larger paintings, more complex subject matter, and more interesting uses of color in other paintings. However, it is the elusive expression on her face that draws so many to her portrait. We are seduced by the question of whether she is smiling or stoic, where her gaze is fixed, and any number of other questions. In a more contemporary example, the public was seduced by Steve Jobs’ first revelation of the iphone. Following the introduction, there was five months of silence before it was released. The seduction of the public created a landslide of interest and sales. In both cases, seduction is achieved by revealing some information, coupled with clues to entice us further, and then time/space to formulate a response.
Subtraction focuses on what is not there or is not to be done. In an age of overwhelming commercial appeals, our excess as consumers frequently creates a profusion of clutter. Homes in the U.S.A. in particular have grown to sizes far beyond the real needs of their inhabitants. Sarah Susanka, creator of home architectural plans revealed in The Not So Big House, epitomizes the idea of subtraction in a big house era. In Susanka’s designs, spaces are eliminated that are not used regularly. In her houses, all spaces are used and are frequently open to others, using only ceiling heights and visual difference to define the functions of space. These designs were achieved by subtracting out the on average 30% of home space that goes unused in most homes. And, in the place of subtracted space, a simple elegance, functionality, and quietude emerges.
The final element of elegance is sustainability. Sustainability, in fact, is the summative element because symmetry, seduction, and subtraction can actually provide the pathway to more ingenious and judicious use of many things. When there is an absence of resources, our creativity increases. PlayPumps International is an example that demonstrates the point of scarcity sometimes being the origin of simple solutions. Trevor Field was on a fishing trip to the eastern “Wild Coast” of Africa when he saw women waiting for days to gather water for their families. His concern for these local conditions, coupled with later seeing the display of a merry-go-round that pumped water in South Africa, caused Field to license the idea to begin production of pumps to create self-sustaining water systems powered by children’s play. One thousand pumps were in place in 2009 and another 4,000 planned by 2010. The PlayPump would never have happened unless there had been an absence of water and no electrical source coupled with the observation of someone called to make a difference by his own conscience.
To think of elegance as resulting in less expense and reduced use of resources seems counter-intuitive. However, May provides ample examples that symmetry, seduction, and subtraction just may allow us to have a richer, fuller, and more sustainable life.