This is a question that pops up in my mind when I am looking at everything. The truth is that the difference between someone with a design mind is that we have been taught not to be a casual consumer but a deliberate observer. One of my most important personal truths is that everything that is designed is critical to our experience of the world. This can be as important as architecture by the greats., people from Iktinos to Le Corbusier, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid. This can be a fully realized interior, or even a doorknob which I see as part of a whole interior. This can be a dress or a jewel. What separates design from art is one simple and critical thing, the function. Sure the lines are blurred in a lot of cases, but the function is always there in a successful design. What makes the design perfection, however, is when the function of a piece is married with an artistic eye, and the piece is actually elevated to something beyond the pale.
The reason I ask myself that question is because I feel there is so much bad design out there and I don’t think people are trained to recognize it. Under the guise of simply saying that’s just someone's taste, we skate by, glossing over what makes design so important, or indeed simply good. Unfortunately, that does not excuse poor design, or someone’s lack of interest in it. I see it all too often when people look at a room and say I don’t like clutter. Often, it is because they are paralyzed with a fear of what to add to a room to arrange it well. It is not just consuming items, or seeing something pretty and buying it. it is more about choosing things deliberately. Ask yourself why that table looks good next to that chair, and what scale the lamp should be to hold up to the heft/lightness of the piece it is sitting on. How do we train our eye to be better at this?
Take pictures of things you like. Study them. Ask yourself what that color combination you thought was so daring works well. Question why the contrast of the antique and starkly contemporary works so well together. Do the pieces have a similar line, quality, or do they simply hearken back to each other as Art Deco did so well to its classical inspiration. Knowing the past and studying it is a critiacal way to develop your eye and your personal style. This is the key to great design. Understanding that what came before is important and that by building on it we are contributing to a greater legacy.
Look at the work of great designers, architects, and fashion designers. A lot of them are ahead of the curve in terms of what feels fresh or new because since they are in the industry they look at a lot of things and get fatigued like we all do; only sooner than we all do! There is also a thread running through all their work and that is a strong concept that drives the project. I approach all my projects from a conceptual standpoint. This framework helps to develop a direction for the project and with the scope of work and desired outcome helps to drive the decision making process. By having a conceptual direction, we automatically exclude a lot of things that otherwise would not work and strengthen the end design.
Lastly. Look at art. Study how it makes you feel. It is in understanding how an object can make you feel or understand something in a different way, that you will truly capture what great design means. A professor of mine once said that a good architect manipulates people into using the building the way it was designed. A great architect shapes apace and inspires people to use the building in the way it was designed. What is the difference you might ask. Ease. The appearance of effortlessness in this case. The comfort one feels in the space. By looking at art you cn begin to understand the world at large. The violence with which a Lucio Fontana canvas is sliced open belies the calm and reflective nature of the final piece. A delicate violence some would say. Has anyone who has ever seen the perfect lazy movement of a Calder mobile ever felt anything but peace? While the final works are beautiful and can be appreciated as such, understanding them and why and how they were made enhances your experience of them.
I guess the answer is no. Beauty is not subjective and neither is taste for that matter. There are objective criteria to define both. There are also ways to break the rules to create an exquisite tension between what is considered beautiful or tasteful and what is not. This is actually what propels design forward.
It is easy to design something functional. It is easy to design something beautiful. When the two come together it can be indistinguishable from alchemy.