Coinciding with the unveiling of the 2021 Genesis G80's swish new design inspired by nature and Korean architecture, the auto brand teamed up with Surface to investigate the science of beauty—why our brains are wired to find curvilinear forms more alluring than straight lines and rectilinear aesthetics.
To celebrate the launch of the new Genesis G80, whose redesign is a study in dynamic lines and parabolic contours, Surface partnered with the Korean automotive brand to explore the beauty of curves and the scientific impact of non-linear shapes on the brain. In concert with the story, we transformed the G80 into a canvas for an unconventional photoshoot, recasting the vehicle as a design gallery to display the work of influential artists, designers, and brands such as Bari Ziperstein, Shinique Smith, Ara Thorose, and Entler. The result showcases the car through a dramatic new lens, in a holistic environment with kindred objects of desire.
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Vladimir Kagan’s swooping sofas, Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre—some of history’s most spectacular feats of design ingenuity share a common trait: curvilinear lines. Maybe it has something to do with our brains, which neuroscientists have proven to be hard-wired to prefer contours over straight lines because we perceive them as less threatening. Or perhaps it’s because sinuous forms incite a sense of freedom and possibility—an escape from the severe, constricting realities of our boxy existence.
In recent years, numerous studies have confirmed the phenomenon. Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore hosted a 3D exhibition, titled “Beauty and the Brain,” in which they tracked visitors’ shape preferences. In a separate study, psychologist Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto at Scarborough teamed up with European designers to ascertain how participants, hooked into brain imaging machines, would react to photographs of various interior design styles. The findings confirmed their suspicions: We’re far more likely to label a room “beautiful” if it features curvy shapes and non-linear lines.
Moshe Bar of Harvard Medical School found that objects such as square watches and sharp-edged sofas activate the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes fear. Meanwhile, the data visualization researcher Manuel Lima, who has led design teams at leading tech and creative companies such as Google and R/GA, published a 2018 must-read titled The Book of Circles in which he examines humanity’s 40,000-year-old attraction to spherical shapes. The same year, one of Vartanian’s colleagues, Anjan Chatterjee, convinced the University of Pennsylvania to let him establish the first-ever Center for Neuroaesthetics to explore neural systems that underlie aesthetic experiences and choices.
So what is the science of beauty? Vartanian has been asking that question for most of his career. He’s one of the leading minds in the nascent field of neuroaesthetics, and has a twofold focus: studying how the brain both fires up creative ideas and responds to the products of them. While his field might be a newcomer to the scientific canon, the ideas trace back at least a century.
“There are tantalizing studies from the 1920s where people come into what must have been some of the earliest lands in psychology. They were shown either jagged or curvy drawings and asked to describe how they made them feel and which ones they liked more. From that very early phase, it was already clear that people prefer curvature. Over time, those studies moved into cars and interiors, then objects, imaginary objects, and the effect kept on replicating. So everyone’s like, you know, there’s something sort of real there to look at,” says Vartanian, who recently launched a new postgraduate program for Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design in Venice, Italy.
He’s done just that. Starting with the aforementioned study in Spain, a team of designers, psychologists, and neuroscientists conducted brain imaging work while showing subjects images of curvilinear or rectilinear rooms, and asking them to indicate which ones they found beautiful. The rooms with soft edges prevailed, as expected, but it’s what Vartanian discovered in the MRI scans that really sparked his intrigue.
“When people looked at the curved rooms, it activated a region in the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a core part of the brain’s emotion network. We found quotations from the 1910s and ‘20s where people described their preference for curved design as a feeling,” he says. “So it’s this idea that you like these things because of their impact on your emotional states. The fact that we found activation in the brain that actually encodes emotion was a very exciting finding.”
The Brooklyn designer Ara Thorose has his own unscientific theories. His furniture pieces have received acclaim for their whimsical configurations that often take on lifelike, anthropomorphic forms. His practice speaks indirectly about the body, exploring tension as it corresponds to the human figure while still maintaining a distinct abstract presence. Two years ago, his work headlined an exhibition called “Neotenic Design” at the erstwhile Brooklyn design incubator A/D/O that investigated the phenomenon of rotund, amorphous styles in furniture design.
“There’s a trend towards cute, curving forms, and there’s been conversation around that because we intuitively find faces in things that don’t have faces, bodies where there isn’t necessarily a body,” he says, hypothesizing that we constantly ascribe our own identities to inanimate objects because it enables us to view ourselves in a way that pleases us. “We immediately personify them and call them a she or he. It’s what makes dolls magical or toys in general—we have a tendency to let our imaginations go further than the object allows us to. The beauty of curves isn’t cute necessarily, but rather speaks to our sense of beings as corporal and sensuous and sensual—beauty speaks to ideals. Beautiful forms are aspirational.”
The proliferation of this design style is no accident. In a recent study conducted in his hometown of Toronto, Vartanian presented the findings of his first study, showing people’s association of curvature with beauty, to a group of about 70 to 80 designers and architects. Yes, they said, but these are people with no formal training in design. Some even suggested that, if administered to their group, the test results might show the opposite outcome. They argued their expertise allowed them to appreciate jagged, more severe lines in a way the layman wasn’t capable of. The results were eye-opening, if not ego-puncturing. “Compared to the non-experts, the experts preferred the curved rooms more,” Vartanian says. “It suggests that even something as subtle as contour can really sway your aesthetic and that even architects and designers show the same preference for non-linear design.”
Which brings us to the 2021 Genesis G80. Inspired by the Korean architecture philosophy of white space and the principles of nature, the newly unveiled redesign is a masterwork in dynamic lines. Spearheaded by SangYup Lee, Senior Vice President and Head of Hyundai Global Design Center, the new silhouette showcases wing-like LED quad lights, a sculptural crest grille flashing the brand’s signature crosshatch G-Matrix pattern mimicking the diffuse reflection of light from a diamond, and rear curvature that takes cues from classic 1960s coupe culture. From the front, the sloping parabolic anatomy gives it the figuration of a muscular apex predator stalking its prey.
On the interior, the cabin’s available quilted nappa leather seats etched with arching accents are complemented by details exemplifying the precision that defines the brand’s Korean heritage: available matte wood trim, a showpiece steering wheel, and a tactile knurled-metal rotary infotainment control knob topped with tempered glass. The available cutting-edge tech is equally impressive, including an eye-tracking infrared camera in the cluster, ambient mood lighting, Remote Smart Parking Assist, and the world’s first Smart Cruise Control system with machine learning that replicates the driver’s style of driving.
The G80’s new look has already earned adoration from the auto and design worlds alike. We know that science can explain why we find it alluring but it also raises another question. What’s the science of sexy?