It's the mission of Marilyn Bauman's CSI class - Color Scene Investigation - at the Chester County Historical Society: how to determine whether something is aesthetically pleasing.
"It's like learning a foreign language," said Bauman, the director emeritus of the Violette de Mazia Foundation, a nonprofit in Wayne that develops and promotes programs to advance art appreciation the Barnesian way. Its namesake directed the art education program under Barnes. "When [people] get it, it can be applied to anything."
Interior design: Where should you place the dining room table? Fashion: How well is this sweater made? Home decor: Is the coffee table designed well? Barnes' point was for people to stop looking at labels, and look at the object's qualities, such as its shape or texture.
Bauman spent time in recent classes coaxing her students to look for repetition in paintings - also an important element in interior design. Looking at Courbet's Still Life Apples and Pears (1871), students saw the repetition of the circles in the apples and the repetition of color. At the Barnes, where Bauman also teaches, students looked at Daumier's The Ribalds (circa 1848) and saw lots of triangles. The artists intentionally created these rhythms.
Libbe Mason, 62, of Wilmington is enrolled at Chester County. After just a few classes, Mason seemed to have a firm grasp on Barnes' viewpoint. "Where are the lines? What is creating space? ... It either works to make it art, or doesn't quite make it. It's not aesthetically pleasing, [if it] doesn't touch the senses."
The one way that art, and design, touches the senses is through balance, Bauman said. Humans are "innately equipped to enjoy balance."
In interior design, in music, in art, balance is achieved not just through repetition, but repetition with variety.
Go to your china closet and look at your crystal stemware. The designs are all variations on a theme.
This is why good designers take one motif and play with it, while also incorporating excellent handling of lines, color, space, and light.
You can find them all in a powder room - as well as the other spaces - in a home in Lower Merion designed by Beth Ann Kessler, who has taken classes similar to Bauman's for 26 years. The method has taught her to see life in a whole new way.
"It's a blessing and a curse," she said. "You can never learn enough."
In the master bedroom, she has made balance practical. Kessler, who has a degree in architecture, took an existing column and put a shallow cabinet in front of it; now her clients have extra storage. She covered it all in wood veneer so it appears as one unit. Then, to add balance, she erected a matching deep cabinet not far from the existing column. Inside, she installed a refrigerator.
With good design, Kessler said, you need unity to recur and variety to occur. So a careful eye will see the same design in inlays throughout the home, but in different materials: black ebony in the living room, faux ivory in the home theater, silver leaf in the bedroom. Starbursts, in different sizes and materials, are in transoms and doors, including in the powder room.
Her clients had a glass console table they had used in their foyer, but she decided it would be perfect to use in the powder room, as the sink's base. It was also the foundation for the room's design: sleek, contemporary, clean, and soft.
The round quality of the pedestal base, in shades of blue and pink, is mirrored in the custom glass bubble mosaic floor, colored shades of blue and pink. Some tiles are polished and some are frosted, to complement similar qualities in the pedestal. Kessler chose mirrors and lighting for their round shapes. "Art and life are inseparable," she said. "When you walk into a space, [you should] have a healthy jolt."
When Mitchell, 34, and Restrepo, 32, a Colombian native, set out to create Mi Cumbia in 2009, they wanted to establish a spa whose products were completely organic, including the polishes.
The aesthetic experience starts at the door with sound - a bell rings as you enter, and Colombian music is playing quietly in the background. Mi Cumbia clients rest their hands on rolled-up coffee bags covered with linen. Most of the walls are made from clay and decorated with coffee bags. Handmade jewelry and hairpieces hang from them.
"We started with clay," Mitchell said. In Restrepo's village, all the houses are made from clay. And of course, Colombia is famous for its coffee.
The spa also sells chocolate. "Customers are hearing music, tasting chocolate. It's all about the aesthetic experience."
The coffee-bag motif continues throughout the 17-foot-wide spa, each bag carefully coordinated with its neighbor. "It took a long time to decorate," Mitchell said. At the couple's home, also decorated through the Barnesian point of view, a 10-by-15-foot wall, with 12 large paintings, took six months to design.
The shop's design is more fluid and changes frequently. "If you become content, it will never become more refined," Mitchell said. "This is living and breathing."
It was about five years ago that the Baumans revamped their living room, the furniture showing little signs of life after three kids and a few pets. After buying a sectional and a flat-screen, they were left with a large, bare wall.
Looking to pick up the new colors and shapes in the room, the Baumans found a half-table, end tables, and an area rug. "I had the area rug repeating the colors and shapes in the room - the curve of the sectional and chair, the curve of the table and end tables, and the repetition of circles in throw pillows," she said.
Next: hanging the pictures. First, they balanced the center of the wall using the table and a circular painting. The repetitive, upright thrust of the semicircular curve of the table pointing at the circular painting did the trick. They capped the circular painting with an oval painting. They balanced the colors in the paintings with those in the furniture and area rug.
Bauman moved sculptures from other areas of the house to balance the exhibit; for example, she displayed two African dolls because of their tubular shapes and color.
When Marcelle Pick, now president of the de Mazia foundation, first took art courses with de Mazia herself in 1969, "I was sweating."
De Mazia kept asking, "What do you see in the painting?" Students answered, "A woman. A woman eating." This went on for 10 minutes, Pick said. Finally, de Mazia gave the answer. "What you see is paint on canvas." By being subjective, she said, "You limit yourself to what you see."
The classes give you the desire to go on discovering, Pick said. You learn to see. "When you meet someone, you ask questions. It's the same thing of a work of art."