“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as the saying goes. This expression celebrates acceptance, affirming that the appearance of a person or object doesn’t have to align with beauty norms to be lovely. It’s a refreshing theme that runs throughout The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption by art, design, nature and science writer Katy Kelleher.
A frequent contributor to The Paris Review, where she formerly authored a column on color called Hue’s Hue, Kelleher writes candidly about her personal experiences as a home and design writer, which involved crafting descriptive write-ups of “beautiful things and their various charms.” But during this journey, she discovered that no matter which glittering objects she wrote about, the ugliness of animal cruelty, worker exploitation, toxic chemicals and other grisly realities still filtered through the beauty. “I came to accept that desire and repulsion exist in tandem,” she writes, “and that the most poignant beauties are interthread with ugliness.”
Divided into 10 thought-provoking chapters focusing on subjects such as flowers, gemstones, silk, perfume, china and even glass, Kelleher skillfully dissects many kinds of things that humans have found desirable over the years. She intertwines these discussions with her personal definition of beauty and reminds readers that beautiful things can be useful for more than their looks. For example, fine dishes are for gathering, feeding and sharing, not just display.
Combining elements of science, history, consumerism and mysticism, Kelleher’s prose is lively, informative and, at times, humorous. Her personal attachment to the concept of beauty turns what could have been a dry, aesthetic exploration into something soul-cleansing and restorative. Ultimately, her hope is that The Ugly History of Beautiful Things “will help you open your eyes to the beauty that already surrounds you, beauty that already exists in your cities and homes and backyards.”