‘Essential’ room © Maremosso
‘Essential’ room © Maremosso Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Save Save to myFT Maria Crawford APRIL 19, 2019 Print this page2 Among the eye-catching, high-end and cutting-edge displays competing for clicks and column inches during Milan’s Design Week, one installation stood out for its ordinariness. Around the courtyard of Spazio Maiocchi in the city centre, were arranged a series of three rooms, each decorated, fragranced and soundtracked to a different theme.
While around the rest of the city hordes of overstimulated design aficionados dashed from one overcrowded Insta-opportunity to the next, here a few people at a time were led into each room and given five minutes to mooch around — encouraged to sit or wander where they wished, touch surfaces, examine the books and objects on display, like a nosy neighbour who thinks no one is watching — before being led into the next. For the focus of “A Space for Being” was not the decor, but the visitors interacting with it. Specifically, their movement, body temperature, skin conductivity, breathing and heart rate, all read by sensors in wrist bands. The changes occurring in each room would illustrate, in theory, that our aesthetic experiences have a measurable impact on our bodies. Ultimately, that data may help people to identify the designs that boost their physical wellbeing.
‘Transformative’ room © Maremosso
The project is a collaboration between Google Design Studio, the International Art + Minds Lab at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, Reddymade Architecture and Muuto, the Danish furniture maker. Last year, Google made its Milan debut with its hardware range, but this year Ivy Ross, vice-president of hardware design at Google, took a more radical approach. She wanted to use a Google algorithm to explore the concept of neuroaesthetics, an interdisciplinary field that bridges art and science. The term neuroaesthetics was coined by University College London professor Semir Zeki in the late 1990s. “It basically means how your brain changes on the arts, from an empirical point of view,” says Susan Magsamen, founder and executive director of the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins.
‘Vital’ room © Maremosso
Eight months ago, she received a call from Ross asking if they could match neuroaesthetics to “an algorithm that could feed back to people what’s going on their physiology”. Once Magsamen agreed to the principle, Ross approached architect Suchi Reddy about making the theoretical spaces a reality. ‘Transformative’ room © Maremosso “There have been studies in all the different sensory systems, starting in vision, then auditory, olfactory, haptic, touch, to really understand how your body changes in these sensory experiences and how different art forms have that ability,” says Magsamen. “Everything is aesthetic but there are certain aesthetic experiences that rise above, which is where we have awe and wonder and beauty.
Printout showing Maria’s response to the ‘Vital’ room © Google Hardware Design
Neuroaesthetics is interested in how those vibrations really can change you to have some kind of transcendent experience, whatever that is.” This is not the first time neuroaesthetics has entered an arts space. In 2015 Tate Britain hosted the Tate Sensorium, where visitors wore bands that measured their physical responses while exposed to a combination of paintings, smells, sounds and haptic experiences. ‘Vital’ room © Maremosso “Science and technology have brought non-invasive ways to measure biology, and imaging. That’s rapidly changing,” adds Magsamen. “The more we can use that as knowledge to inform intuition, to inform art, the closer we get to what our individual needs are. You can imagine having personalised spaces that use that information over time.” In “A Space for Being”, as visitors leave the third room and return their wristbands, their data are read and presented as circular graphics, one for each room. (Google emphasises that it erases the data.) The visitor is given a printout of the room where, according to the data, they felt most at ease: “Essential”, “Vital” or “Transformative”. Printout showing Maria’s response to the ‘Vital’ room © Google Hardware Design Magsamen notices from my printout that I was most at ease in “Vital”. I tell her the result had surprised me, as Vital was the room I liked least. “But there was something about that room that really resonated with you,” she says. “Sometimes what you think and what you feel are not the same things.
There might have been a scent that made you feel at ease in that space.” She points to an explosion of red on the graphic, in my last minute or so in the room. “What were you doing over here? That’s a very powerful reaction.” As far as I can remember, it coincided with my noticing the jagged geometric lighting in a room that I had considered almost offensively inoffensive. This concept of neuroaesthetics is challenging for people who have a strong sense of their own taste. “But very freeing,” says Magsamen, “when you can understand that beauty is not a colour but a feeling, and your beauty and my beauty are going to be different based on who we are.” House & Home Unlocked © Dreamstime Welcome to a new newsletter for people interested in the property market and curious about design, architecture and interiors. Every Friday, in your inbox. Sign up here with one click Christian Grosen, design director of Muuto, welcomes the idea of measuring people’s involuntary responses to his work: “It’s always been the Achilles heel of design that you can’t really quantify it,” he says. “Suddenly, it’s like creating a new language around design.
It’s interesting to know that chemistry is happening — and it’s out of control. You can’t control it, just like you can’t control falling in love.” Ross hopes projects like this will boost awareness of all our aesthetic experiences, not just design: “We’ve got a little flatlined as a society; we’ve been so [focused on] optimising and getting a lot of things done, we’ve forgotten what feeling alive is. That’s music, dancing, artwork, colour, scent,” she says. “All of these things have a powerful effect and we need to pay attention to them. They’re not ‘nice to haves’.” There are clinical applications, such as hospital wards for different conditions. “Neuroaesthetics can help to provide you with your own quality of life, no matter what stage of life that you’re in,” says Magsamen. “That’s really promising and hopeful.” Follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos