The Aesthetics of Aging in Place Design: Turning Obstacles into Beauty

(Pilar Touch20 by Delta)

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.

-Charles Eames

Design’s fundamental role is problem solver.

-Fast Company, 2005

I visited Rejuvenation-Portland for the first time several weeks ago; when I entered the store my heart actually began to race—like when knocking on the door of a blind date. Beautiful aesthetics has always had that affect on me. My mind went calm as the visual took over and I began to experience a delight of the senses.

The Aesthetic Experience

“Aesthetic Arrest” was first employed by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce posits the idea: when we are in the presence of great beauty, our minds go still.

(Lascaux Caves in SW France: Beautiful cave paintings dating back some 17,000 yrs.)

The Mythologist Joseph Campbell in his lectures on Joyce spoke to this phenomenon: “The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object….you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.” This radiance, the perception of beauty, is regarded as a communication of the hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form.

This “hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form” has many names; what it’s called is not important—that you experience it is.

Communicating through the Senses

Author Virginia Postrel notes that aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses. It is the art of creating reactions without words, through the look and feel of people, places, and things. In other words, aesthetics shows rather than tells, delights rather than instructs. The effects are immediate, perceptual, and emotional.  

For example, the other day I was driving past the bus stop near my home and glanced over just in time to witness an elderly Russian man with a deeply weathered face smelling a bouquet of Safeway flowers thrust to his nose by a younger woman. It caused me to pause; I felt lifted… it was delightful.

Making Special (Think Martha)

Theorist Ellen Dissanayake defined art (aesthetics) as “Making Special,” a behavior designed to be “sensorily and emotionally gratifying and more than strictly necessary.” She thinks that the instinct for “making special” is universal and innate; an aspect of humanity’s evolved biological nature. Even primitive societies with challenges to basic needs, desired beauty in their environments; be it for ritual, religious, or pleasure purposes:

For as far back as there are written records we find evidence of the awe and exhilaration people feel upon seeing or hearing something beautiful. The earliest poems contain loving descriptions of landscapes, of the play of light on water, of the beauty of the human form, of the proportions of man-made structures. The power of music to enthrall the senses is one of the oldest subjects of myth. And, of course, among the earliest traces of human life on earth are innumerable carvings, wall paintings, graffiti, and other decorations, all attesting to humanity’s attempts to modify its environment so as to make it more “beautiful.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson/ The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter (1990)

Today we are living in the age of Aesthetics; meaning our western culture has become so affluent that our basic needs are covered. Modern manufacturing has solved the problems of lowering costs, making goods/services widely available, functional and energy saving—we have advanced beyond mere function alone; and now our desire for form (aesthetics) is driving demand; and is the differentiator in a crowed market place. This has been termed: “The Aesthetic Imperative.”

Freedom, Beauty, and Pleasure

Postrel quotes an influential industrial designer: “Good design is not about the perfect thing anymore, but about helping a lot of different people build their own personal identities. Form follows emotion” now supplants “form follows function.” Emotion now tells the user what they will find functional. The role of a chair is now beyond a place to sit—it is to make life enjoyable.

Modernist design once promised efficiency, rationality, and truth; in the age of aesthetics freedom, beauty, and pleasure are now the mantra. Design’s role for aging-in-place remains one of accomplishing a purpose and problem solving; fortunately for those aging in the age of aesthetics, concepts such as universal design are informed by the aesthetic imperative. In order for age-friendly product developers to compete and survive in the booming mature market place they need to design not only for function, but to delight the senses with non-stigmatizing design. They must understand that we buy on deep biological emotion.

Designers, turn obstacles into beauty–or perish…



France Replicates PreHistoric Cave Paintings  

The Bradshaw Foundation Laseaux Cave: An Introduction

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty

A New Instinct for the 21st Century: Ross Lovegrove

Smart Design: Universal Design

The Inner Landscape of Beauty by John O’Dono


Comment 1

  1. Barbara O'Brien
    November 22, 2010

    Dear Patrick,

    I just have a quick question for you but couldn’t find an email so had to resort to this. I am a progressive blogger on senior issues. Please email me back at when you get a chance. Thanks.


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