Four Ways of Seeing a Mirror

I’ve been thinking about what criteria can be used to assess the aesthetic value of a hand-silvered mirror.  In any form of functional craft, the artisan must always split her artistic commitment between the beauty of the object and its utility for the subject.  With the mirror, however, this split is amplified and complicated beyond a basic form/function duality.  This is due to the mirror’s reflective nature, illusory dimensionality and meaningful role in the viewer’s sense of self.

What is a mirror?  A mirror can be seen in four different ways: (1) as an object, (2) as a reflection, (3) as a surface, and (4) as the self.  The purpose of this essay is to gain an understanding of these four aspects, in order to think about how each aspect influences the overall beauty and purpose of the handmade mirror.

Four Ways of Seeing a Mirror

The mirror as an object

In a way, the crux of the mirror design is about designing it as an object, that is, a frame with a sheet of glass in it.  Here, the level of conscious and obvious design is most in play. The mirror can be modern, baroque, minimalist, etc.  It can be colorful, muted, opulent, etc.  When designing the mirror as an object (irrespective of its function as a reflective tool), three primary aspects are taken in to consideration: the overall look, the proportion and the window aspect:

The overall look is the style, coloration, time period.   For the proportion, the frame width to mirror size ratio is the most important aspect of what makes a mirror beautiful. The goal is perfect balance.  This aspect is not to be overlooked; the wrong proportion can undo a beautiful frame and glass.  The bevel of the glass, or other factors, all must be factored in for perfect balance.   By window aspect, I mean, a mirror must be designed as a window, or a portal.  Proportion and angles/slopes create this effect.  A a good mirror frame is always designed to invite the viewer into it’s center.

The mirror as a reflection

Where is a mirror? The captivating mythos around mirrors stems from the fact that what a mirror truly is, isn’t really there at all.  A reflection is a living, breathing, three-dimensional replica of the world, only distinguishable from reality by its inability to be touched.   The mirror is a vessel for a reflection, but the reflection itself does not really exist in three-dimensional space in any logical way. The reflection is without a location, the mirror gives the illusion of receding deeply into the wall behind it, but the reflection isn’t there, the wall is.  So where is the reflection?

The mirror as a surface

Whereas the early mirror-makers of Murano took such singular pride in the crystal clear invisibility of the mirrored glass surface, artisan mirror-makers and appreciators of antique mirrors know the beauty of a mirror’s veil.  Through time’s natural erosion or intentional silvering techniques, the mirror can be imperfectly silvered to create the illusion of a layer or veil through which the viewer much look to perceive the reflection.  This veil can accent, distort, cloak, fog, or mystify the reflection, and so, the viewers relationship to herself.  This veil can also itself be like an abstract painting or decorative element.

The mirror as the self

What’s remarkable about the mirror is its ability to hide in plain sight. A mirror is often a large object with an ornate frame a polished glass surface, a very noticeable thing, and yet, when people see a mirror, they just think “me”.  The viewer’s inability to differentiate the object from the self is remarkable when you think about it.


So how do these aspects influence the mirror designer’s artistic choices?  In addition to creating a frame that functions like a window, the mirror also performs an invisible alchemy on its viewer, becoming deeply but invisibily meshed with the viewers sense of self.

Everything in the mirror-makers purview—moulding design, proportion, design, surface effects—it’s all about a perfect harmonious balance that creates an invisible result.   A hand-silvered mirror must transcend its objectivity to create an atmosphere.   How the viewer enters into the mirror’s atmosphere and responds to herself within it, depends, of course, on the viewer.