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TED2008: Beauty is survival, boredom is style

The density of this year’s TED conference is amazing. I’m missing some of the short sessions, the three minute talks that come between the longer presentations. And during the inter-session break this morning, Jill Sobule plays a concert live in Aspen, broadcast via satellite. It’s an example of just how action-packed this event is – even the breaks are filled with sessions worth blogging.

The very beautiful June Cohen takes Chris Anderson’s place on stage to introduce a set of talks on the topic, “Is Beauty Truth?” She’s got a tough challenge – the lead speaker for this session, Nancy Etcoff, has been forced to cancel due to illness. Because Etcoff’s book, “Survival of the Prettiest“, was supposed to set the stage for this session, Cohen briefly describes the ideas in the book.

Whether we admit it or not, beauty matters to us. People experience happiness and pleasure when we’re surrounded by beautiful things. And perceptions of beauty are remarkably consistent across races and cultures. Babies a few weeks old will respond to beautiful faces of any race. Cohen quips, “Even babies are shallow.”

Beauty has survival attributes. When you ask people to describe a beautiful landscape, they’ll tell you about mountains, with a lake or ocean in the foreground. This is a very survivable landscape for humans – lots of places to hide, ready water sources. We respond to human beauty for similar reasons – clear skin and shiny hair are signs that someone is healthy and parasite free and likely fertile.

Isaac Mizrahi is introduced as a democratizer of fashion, someone who markets cotoure at both the high and low end. Cohen points out that he’s a man of many talents, a host of a talk show, an occasional cabaret performer, as well as a leading fashion designer.

Mizrahi talks about his process as a designer. It’s a process that appears to involve many sleepless nights. Mizrahi has recently begun to embrace “not sleeping much as a great virtue.” Instead, he walks, and follows people around New York who he thinks look interesting. This can get him into trouble – Page Six once accused him of cruising men on the streets. He claims he was following a guy who’s shoes were interesting. He took a photo of the shoes, shook his hand and walked on.

“The only ones that look interesting are those that are surprising, sometimes those that look like a mistake.” Those mistakes can feel like a designer’s already beat him to the punch: “Someone made that mistake already, so I can’t do it anymore.” His inspiration doesn’t come from research. “If I’m commissioned to do an 18th century opera, I’ll do research, not because it’s interesting, but because it’s what I’m supposed to do.”

His colors are inspired mostly by film, often classic films. “The light from the projection makes the colors look impossible.” He’s interested in the protrayal of women: “Are they glorified, or are they ironically glorified.” He rarely seizes on colors found in nature, “sometimes natural color juxtaposed against unnatural color.” The goal is to find balance between these colors, asking the question, “How can I make anything as beautiful as that image of Natalie Wood?”

He’s also driven by astrologers and tarot card readers. They tell him to do something, and he does. A reading he had as a young man told him that the man of his dreams was named Eric. “For years, I would go to bars and start humping any guy named Eric. I’d sometimes get really desperate and just call out ‘Eric’ to see who turned around.”

Mizrahi’s work connects to other art forms. He made puppets as a child, went to performing arts school as an actor and befriended ballet dancers. Some of his closest friends are Twyla Tharpe and Mark Morris, who he often designs for. He’s interested in making daytime TV, and shows a clip of him cutting Rosie O’Donnell’s hair and giving her a Flock of Seagulls haircut.

“Style makes you feel great because it takes your mind of the fact that you’re going to die.” He goes on, “Style is great only inasmuch as it’s amusing.” He tells us that fashion designers need to be sightly bored with everything, or at least need to pretend that they’re slightly bored.

(I was slightly bored by this talk. It was self-indulgent and rambling, and didn’t leave me with much to hold onto. On the other hand, I’m quite possibly the world’s least stylish person. It’s my experience that designers tend to give terrible talks at TED – they have a tough time articulating what they do, especially in comparison to academics, used to explaining their work in classrooms.)