A review of the Design for a Living Mind exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt
By Holly Burns
“I like working from the sheep rather than the cotton factory because it has a face and it’s alive.” Christian Meindertsma
“I believe there are ways that design can bring sustainable solutions to places, even in the rainforest.” Stephen Burks
“How do you start connecting the world so that it can help each other out and so that everyone’s benefiting?” Kate Spade
These are some of my favorite quotes from the Design for a Living World exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City. This exhibit, which is on display through January 4th, 2010, takes you on a journey to different parts of the world with 10 prominent designers as your tour guides. The designers were challenged to “create objects using sustainably grown and harvested materials from some of the world’s most beautiful and fragile places” (Cooper Hewitt), and include the likes of Ezri Tarazi, Isaac Mizrahi, Yves Behar and those quoted above (to name a few).
Works showcased included a flock rug made from felted wool of Idaho sheep, a chaise made of metal and bamboo from the Yunnan Province of China, a cocoa-grater stir stick from La Amistad, Costa Rican jewelry made from vegetable ivory and black pearls of the Federated States of Micronesia and a dress and jacket covered in sequin-like disks made from the pelts of Alaskan salmon.
My first concern is whether these materials are truly sustainable because most of the materials used could be depleted in the long term; perhaps the exhibit should say the materials used are naturally occurring, because if the products begin to be mass produced, it seems as if the supply would be diminished unless care was taken to only use the materials as quickly as the habitat could naturally restore the supply.
I would recommend that if you go to the show be sure to watch the video interviews with the designers. The videos influenced the extent to which I liked the work because I learned so much more about the products and because they made the work come alive. However, I have another concern because many of these designs have failed to take sustainable design and push it to the next level. Much of the work still reads granola, so I don’t see consumers buying into the work unless they are already supportive of a more sustainable production line. This work isn’t going to elevate the average consumer’s awareness about what it means to design sustainably and to support sustainable initiatives. I was hoping that the designers would have been more innovative and that I wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them that they were sustainable, organic materials*. Conversely, I’m torn because I understand that the designers were trying to weave a story between their work and the people of the places visited. In this way they are successful.
If given the opportunity to travel to the world’s most beautiful and fragile places to create objects using sustainably grown and harvested materials, where would you go and what would you design? How could you strategically transform the materials into a representation of your brand?
* In my opinion, the designer who did that the best was Isaac Mizrahi who took the salmon leather and turned it into the paillettes (sequin-like disks) that were then sewn onto the layers of fabric. Looking at the outfit on display I would never have made the connection that it was made from parts of fish.
Picture credit: Holly Burns