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Reflect/Refract: A Short History of Seeing Ourselves

We invited guest writer Gretchen Von Koenig to share their expertise, exploring the history of mirrors from art form to the latest trends and techniques, with us for our upcoming mirror show "Might Delete: Share the Reflective Narrative."

Courtesy of Esschert Design

We live in a world where we see ourselves reflected back at us almost everywhere. In the morning, brushing our teeth in the bathroom. During the day, passing glass buildings that reflect ghostly bodies and the streets we are on. In our cars, stealing glances of our own eyes in the rearview mirror. On rainy days, where our footsteps become mirrored in each puddle.

During relaxation time, when our social media scrolls reflect back at us our own image.

It is hard to think of a world where we would rarely see ourselves. More than just a “vain” desire, peering into mirrors prompts philosophical questions about the nature of being and truth. They can delight and amaze, but also distort and betray. They are culturally important objects for everyday rituals, are vessels for spiritual practices, represent science’s ongoing attempts to harness light, and used throughout the history of art and design.

Seeing ourselves is an ancient activity. Water was the first mirror, the first material we could see ourselves on. So special was this reflective quality that Aztec priests harnessed the reflective power of a volcanic stone in order to emulate water’s mystic properties. Tezcatls, or spirit mirrors, were polished disks of obsidian that were believed to be portals to spiritual realms. The smoky depths of these dark reflections inspired the naming of Tezcatlipoca, a powerful Aztec god of the night whose powers were hosted in the etherality of obsidian.

Mirrors have also represented eternal light. Since ancient China, Buddha has often been cast in polished bronze, a material whose reflective properties echoed Buddha’s own representation as everlasting light. Buddhist craftsmen have also hidden the association between Buddha and mirrors deep into objects that have survived to this day. What once was thought to be a hand held mirror from 15th century China was actually a Buddhist magic mirror, a meticulously formed bronze surface that reflected light into a projection of Buddha. This secret image was found by Dr. Hou-Mei Sung, curator of East Asian art at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, who was astonished at the “gauzy” and “phantasmagorical” figure that the mirror produced.

As polished metals gave way to the glass mirrors, our images reflected back at us got sharper. Even the most polished bronze can only reflect 30% of the light, but glass mirrors can render reflections in much more detail. Coinciding with the invention of eyeglasses, this revelation of sharpening our image through light and reflection had massive implications for the fields of medicine and engineering. Doctors and dentists used mirrors to improve medical assessment and treatment. Lighthouses used mirrors as navigational tools for sea travelers. Mirrors are essential for automobile habitats–key technologies for a driver’s environmental awareness and a medium that we come to see other drivers through.

Seeing others has been a key way we have used mirrors. Before CCTV and facial recognition, we have long relied on convex mirrors to surveil workers in factories, shoppers in retail establishments, and pedestrians on the street. Using reflection as surveillance, mirrors have even played a role in statecraft as a tool for spies and espionage. The International Spy Museum has a compact mirror in its collection. Discreetly disguised as makeup, the mirror featured engraved codes that could be seen only at a specific angle and allowed a CIA agent to see around corners and look behind them.

This quality of seeing around and behind has fascinated artists and designers. The disorienting nature of mirrors can be experienced in funhouses, fitting rooms and fine art. Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room repeats her ethereal environments into an endless loop. Jeppe Hein’s Mirror Labyrinth at Brooklyn Bridge Park mesmerized park goers with fragments of themselves dispersed in the New York City skyline, creating a dynamic illusion of people and buildings. As a surface, mirrors are a unique material in that they are not a static pattern or finish–they are codependent on the environment around them to complete the design. They are chameleons to the spaces that they are put in, adopting the surroundings as their skins.

Courtesy Public Art Fund, New York City

When designers use mirrors, they invite users to become part of an ever changing surface design through reflection. While mirrors in lockets and in bathrooms invite this direct viewing, polished and reflective surfaces on toasters and tables allow us to become part of built environments in unexpected ways. Car enthusiasts know this well, inviting a typology of selfies from chrome bumpers and hub caps. Mirrors are also linked with rituals of intimacy, where hotels advertise lovers' suites complete with ceiling mirrors and champagne hot tubs.

As these types of mirrors exist all around us, a new form of reflection has entered and proliferated: photography and social media. Captured images and internet culture allows us to reflect ourselves in new ways and with new tools. How do we use the surface and social media to reflect the self? How is social media itself a mirror and how are our images preserved in static or dynamic configurations? Artspace 8 Gallery in Chicago brought together some of these ideas in their 2021 exhibition Quantum Mirror with an NFT sculpture that explores how people can exist physically and digitally. Everyday we see the multitudes of ways people reflect their own narrative online, shaping new ways that we see ourselves and each other.

Seeing ourselves, online or in our homes, is an age-old practice. Mirrors are ubiquitous in humanity: they are used in the arts, warfare, amusement parks, security systems, and hold spiritual and magical meanings. Smart Phones. Glass. Chrome. Silver. Aluminum. Obsidian. A still collection of water. These are all materials through which we have aimed to reflect ourselves. Vessels for our spirituality. Surfaces for surveillance. The backdrop for daily rituals. Mirrors reflect and refract many shared narratives. Reflecting ourselves has endless possibilities.


Gretchen Von Koenig is a design and technology historian. She teaches history and theory at Parsons School of Design for the MFA Industrial and Interior Design programs and has also taught at Michael Graves School of Design, Pratt Institute and New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Hillier College of Architecture & Design. She has worked at and written for Metropolis Magazine, Arch Daily, Winterthur Portfolio and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She has proudly worked at the AmDC, where she often contemplated shiny surfaces while sanding hundreds of brass disks.

Find more at: and @gretchpiece

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