Praising with Not-So Faint Damn
“Why Design Now?” at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to January 9, brings a kind of joy to the soul.
[ ] Barrel roof tiles that are actually solar panels.
[ ] A multi-story urban farm that shares floors with housing units.
[ ] Carbon-negative concrete that utilizes CO2 from power plants in its creation but produces none of its own.
[ ] A computer-guided robotic concrete extrusion system—a scaled-up version of rapid prototyping–with the potential of building a house in one day.
[ ] A neonatal incubator that can be repaired by rural mechanics using car parts.
[ ] Armadillo protective gear for people who detect landmines for a living–lightweight and comfortable enough to help them avoid the temptation to further risk their lives by removing it.
[ ] A prosthetic arm, courtesy of the Department of Defense, that employs neural-integration strategies to create the speed and dexterity of a natural limb.
[ ] A cart easily configured to carry three different types of cargo, pulled by bicycle and said to give Indian women “approximately five extra hours a day to increase their incomes.”
[ ] Textiles made of discarded cocoon fiber by retired Japanese silk workers, who, in the process, formed a social network.
[ ] An LED lamp powered by the metabolism of the biological life in soil.
Two floors filled with such stuff, created to address urgent needs by real design professionals—graphic, industrial and interior designers, architects, planners, engineers . . . O joy O rapture, really. This is the kind of stuff you could easily get misty-eyed over.
In the past, the Cooper-Hewitt has frustrated the daylights out of me with its name-rank-serial number approach to display, with captions something along the lines of “brass, alligator toenails, Austrian, early 20c”—move along, folks, there’s nothing more to see here. But there is: design is social. For the decorative items I normally associate with the museum, I want to know what they were used for and how they worked. What did they cost? How did that relate to the value of money at the time? Who was likely to own one? What was it about that time and place that gave rise to these particular objects? (Being me, I also want to know how the owners came by their money and did they love their wives.)
For the current exhibit, of products, prototypes and concepts developed over just the past three years, there is vastly more information; after all, having asked “Why?” the museum had an obligation to try at least to explain itself.
The attempts succeed to varying degrees. The “Improved Clay Stove,” in its simplicity one
of the truly lovable projects, is a clay basin that holds a cooking fire and is molded to fit snugly around existing cooking vessels, greatly reducing the smoke—and resulting respiratory illnesses and early deaths—caused by traditional cooking over open flames. Fuel is fed in through a side vent, not by removing the cook pot—that maneuver would let in too much oxygen, which would burn up the firewood too quickly, and lead to the environment-degrading need for yet more firewood, and longer and more dangerous treks to find it. Most of this information is not in the display captions, but comes from the catalog—which is available both in the print catalog and online http://www.cooperhewitt.org/EXHIBITIONS/triennial/why-design-now.asp —and a bit from my own guesswork. What is not clear, from any of these sources, is what exactly is improved about this particular stove, or why (be still, my inner 11-year-old) donkey dung is part of the clay mix, or whether the women in the Darfur camps who make the stoves produce them for personal use or also for sale.
Nonetheless, there is enough information to convince me that this stove can save lives in both the short and long terms, but H20tel, the Dutch hotel all of whose energy is said to come from water? There’s a video demonstration of a cup of water slowly draining into a thing called an oxyhydrogenator and then what looks like a soldering iron striking sparks off what looks like a bar of metal while a translation of the Dutch voiceover claims that the process produces 6200 degrees F, enough energy to melt tungsten, and therefore, it would appear, to power an entire hotel. I desperately want to believe this but, beyond some repetitions of the word “hydropower”—there’s a waterfall in the basement?—we never hear about it again.
Like an awful lot of architectural communication, there’s too many gaps and holes in the telling. At the Carabanchel social housing development in Spain, “its bamboo skin adapts to shield residents from the sun,” leading me to assume it’s on some kind of sensors. After studying the images for a long, long time, I came to the conclusion that this just means that residents can open and close the floor-to-ceiling bamboo shutters to suite their needs at any given time, pretty much what all of Spain does, but not so stylishly, with their horizontal, pull-down shutters. Or maybe there is another explanation. Who knows? And without a floor plan, it’s hard figure out how 88 apartments distributed among five stories could all be floor-through.
It’s been said that architects need to learn to write—and, apparently, to make videos with words in them—but why is it possible to get to the point at almost the speed of haiku when describing not only bamboo carts but also neural integration strategies? Are the architects holding out on the museum’s writers? Do the writers feel obliged to uphold some kind of architectural mystique? This devotion to vagueness makes it possible to imply that design alone saved the infamous drug city of Medellin, Columbia, as though the gangsters’ killing each other off had nothing to do with it.
Although I’ve been writing about design for over 20 years, I come to this show as a fairly ordinary person in off the street, faced with the output of any number of design disciplines and their languages and jargons, plus confusing or missing data. Does feeling stupid, and guilty of not reading Science Times on a regular basis, cause fatigue? Or is the exhaustion just a by-product of a too-big show? A museum this small should not be this tiring. Maybe weeding out some items would make time and space to present a more comprehensive grasp of the remainder.
The show is both stupendous and sloppy—for instance, the Z-20 concentrated solar-power system on display
is missing the small generators that the parabolic mirrors are supposed to concentrate reflected solar energy on, leaving the huge mirrors looking like something that could blind you at 20 paces, bring down jet planes and possibly burn their very own hole in the ozone layer. If an exhibit this large and demanding exhausts the visitor, what might it have done to the people organizing and setting it up?
At least a third of the 130-odd displays could have been eliminated with no loss. I’d begin by jettisoning the fashions, a number of which are based on reviving and supporting traditional crafts and are quite simply not beautiful enough to justify the 21st century costs of handwork or the upkeep involved. I can see rich people buying these things out of a kind of progressive noblesse oblige and not noticing they’ve drifted to the closet floor, but there’s nothing here to inspire the rest of us to save our pennies to buy and then meticulously care for. The designers should have done better by their artisans.
And what to make of Maison Martin Margiela’s Artisanal line, represented here by a dress made of shoelaces and a scratchy-looking “fur” jacket made of garment-label fasteners, both created with the stated goal of “Breathing new life into worn-out, abandoned clothing and found objects.” Did they go door to door collecting the 400 worn-out yet pristine shoelaces for the dress? And the jacket’s 29,000 pesky plastic thingies that attach labels to garments—to get any kind of production going, you’d have to station an inspector in every household in the land in the hopes of capturing maybe a handful per consumer per year.
Issey Miyake’s spring 2009 line appears to have had no social, economic, political, or environmental justification whatsoever, unless you believe that colors derived from a trip to the Peruvian jungle give it a pass. Am I the only one who remembers a time, maybe 20 years ago, when corporations could claim environmental good will by coloring petroleum-based household furnishings green?
I would also ditch the downers. While most of the show identifies problems and suggests solutions, there are a few exhibits that just wallow in how bad it all is. The cleverly named Risk Watch, for instance, “reports information about current dangers, such as the political stability of the country the wearer is in or the current risk of contracting the H1N1 swine flu virus . . . The watch employs the normal language of design to comment on the cultural effects of secrecy, security, and fear.” Or the Artificial Biological Clock, a commentary on modern woman’s reliance on information about her physical, mental and financial well-being, rather than “instinct” (i.e., her parents and partner, according to the catalog and website) to tell her when she’s ready to become a mother.
Anything that claims to be a comment would have to go, not just the Risk Watch and the Artificial Biological Clock, but also the Posterwall for the Twenty-first Century, which could be a very useful constantly changing display of event announcements, but, no, it’s a digital “comment on the ubiquitous texture of digital media.” Celebrity Wallpaper is a one-off repetitive collage of celebrity
portraits “that enacts the obsessive logic of celebrity, with its relentless broadcast of familiar faces.” It’s creator believes “everyone can become a designer by taking charge of communications tools—if not, they risk being designed themselves by the constant barrage of sales and marketing messages.”
I could have sworn we’d learned to avoid this kind of talk towards the end of the last century, but I guess we’re going to need a law against design-as-comment (unless it’s really, really good, like Princess Hijab, who was last seen adding head scarves and face veils to Dolce & Gabbana men’s underwear ads in the Paris Metro http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2010/09/15/princess-hijab-casts-a-veil-over-paris/).
The scaremongering video for the L.A. Earthquake: Get Ready Campaign opens and closes with the notice that it depicts the “realistic outcome of a hypothetical but plausible magnitude 7.8 earthquake” in Southern California” – projected deaths, injuries, property and infrastructure damage, raging fires, disrupted utilities, inadequate government response, the individual as the first line of defense, all this with an anxiety-building sound track. Only about 25 percent of the video focuses on action: bolt house to foundation, get fire extinguisher and first aid kit, store three days worth of water per person (the introduction says there will be no water for weeks or months) and “secure your possessions” by buying property insurance, “secure” being a strange word that somehow implies insurance will save the illustrated Chinese vase from physical damage, insurance as the new styrofoam peanuts. This is called empowerment. No advice on what to do when, as portrayed in the introduction, little Jimmy is under a desk in school on one side of the San Andreas Fault and Mom is out on the streets on the other side, dodging debris and trying to get to him.
The designers of the Etón FR 600 radio say its large-scale controls and compact, rugged styling, aim to “mitigate the emotion of fear,” but the mere existence of this thing goes a long way to mitigating my own fear—it is a radio, a walkie talkie, a cell-phone charger, flashlight, siren, and SOS light beacon. It is powered by a hand-crank dynamo and a solar cell that works even in overcast situations. It could save my life. It could even reunite Mom and little Jimmy, or at least keep Mom out of the range of falling debris while she tries to find out if he’s okay. Take that, L.A. earthquake!
For all my carping, this is a show that, had we known, could have saved enormous summer-camp fees—there’s enough
here to have kept an averagely curious kid engaged at a home or library computer for the entire season just tracking down tantalizing missing or confusing information. For instance, I may have my doubts about the Hope Solar Tower, a mammoth tube of a chimney twice the height of the Empire State Building seated on a solar collector six times the size of Central Park, the whole thing worthy of Albert Speer, Sr., with innards suitable for the next James Bond movie—but it should send reasonably inquisitive kids racing to their computers to find out how the thing works—hot air, cold air, turbines, transmission cables, power for hundreds of thousands of homes.
There are dye-sensitized solar cells performing a sort of artificial photosynthesis for use in agriculture as well as in solar panels. There’s the turbine-equipped M10 Kite-power System, “a tethered wing to fly at altitudes where the wind is both
stronger and more consistent.” The adult in me wants to know how the tether avoids decapitating people, but the kid loves dreaming up all the gory antisocial antics that could take place during the transmission of energy from kite to grid.
There’s also the biomimetic system mounted discreetly on the seabed to harvest the energy of ocean waves, and said to be friendly to marine life, a claim I feel iffy about and would love to have a kid research for me.
HydroNet, a theoretical response to rising water levels over the next century, saves the San Francisco that we love while creating a network of fresh water, geothermal energy and algae-generated hydrogen fuel for hover cars. While I’m still questioning why a watery situation demands new high-density housing that resembles seaweed, there are enough issues to inspire not only research but also the planning of one’s own future city.
Health Map has the serious purpose of tracking worldwide health issues in near-real time, but also plays into the macabre side of all kids. Go to the website, click on a map pin and Wow! Schistosomiasis in Poyang. What’s schistosomiasis? Where’s Poyang? What kind of place is that—what do they do there? World Mapper resizes countries based on hundreds upon hundreds of criteria–things like national populations at different times in history, internet use, airline departures, cable TV and cellphones, rainfall, religion, ecological footprint, mopeds and motorcycles, mortality.
In the end, all my whingeing and whining is about unrequited love. I love the Cooper-Hewitt and this show, but they don’t love me back. They won’t tell me why the chopsticks on display are angled. They printed half the catalog pages for this huge undertaking in small black type on unreadable dark backgrounds. The captions for most of the over 100 displays are placed aesthetically—and back-breakingly—at shin height. After all this time, the deafening refrigerator unit in the café still hasn’t been fixed. It makes me want to stamp my feet, tear my hair out and holler, “Get out here and design this, NOW!”
(ADMISSION IS FREE DURING NATIONAL DESIGN WEEK, OCTOBER 9-17, 2010 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street New York, NY 10128 Museum Hours: Monday–Friday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. /Saturday: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. /Sunday: 11 a.m. –6 p.m. 212.849.8400 http://www.cooperhewitt.org/)
“Why Design Now?” is available to travel after it closes its New York run in January, so keep checking your arts & culture pages for possible dates.
© Judith Davidsen and jdavidsen.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judith Davidsen and jdavidsen.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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