Oct 24, 2009

Exhibitions for a Living World

“There are many ways of working for the needs of underdeveloped and emergent countries. The simplest, most often employed, and probably shabbiest is for the designer to sit in his New York, London, or Stockholm office and to design things to be made in, say, Tanzania. Souvenir-like objects are then manufactured, using native materials and skills, with the pious hope that they will sell in developed countries.”

I returned to this passage in Victor Papanek’s seminal book today, and with good reason. I recently saw an exhibition that has a name so similar, it set off alarms in my head. “Design for a Living World”, an exhibition by the Nature Conservancy, co-curated by Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, and designed by Pentagram, opened at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum on the 14 May, 2009.

When The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, approached the show’s curators to create an exhibition on “landscape, conservation and sustainability”, the curators hit upon the idea of basing the exhibition on ‘materials’. This in itself is problematic, and undermines the whole exercise.  Just because a material is natural, or certified as sustainable, it does not automatically ensure that any design that uses it will be sustainable in the true sense of the word.

Ten prominent designers were given ten natural materials to work with for the exhibition, each material hailing from a specific geographic location. Among these 10 design projects, the one most egregiously at fault, to my mind, is the use of Alaskan salmon leather by Isaac Mizrahi.  Sheep’s wool is the only other animal material in the exhibition, but salmon leather is more precious for a simple reason: sheep don’t have to die to give us their wool, but the salmon have to die so we can use their skin for leather. And when he is given this rare, beautiful, versatile material, Mizrahi doesn’t turn to the amazing possibilities of leather working. Instead, the material is shipped to him in New York, from where he ships it to Paris, where it is pasted on a plastic substrate and cut into pastilles that are then shipped back to him. The white dress he created from these is fit for an angelic Nereid straight out of Neptune’s palace. But as far as sustainability is concerned, it is a criminally empty signifier, for the pasting process ensures that the pastilles are headed for the incinerator after their life cycle.

Mizrahi says that in fashion, aesthetics and sustainability are of equal importance to him. This is but obvious. But the fact is that high fashion has a very unique and critical role to play in sustainable design. The successful use of a material in an haute couture collection can give the material a ticket into every designer’s and manufacturer’s repertoire. This in itself is a great responsibility to bear, and one that is not completely understood by critics of fashion.

Three of the other projects are noteworthy exceptions. Ted Muehling carved ivory nuts into truly stunning pieces of jewellery with a delicacy of colour and form that would have been impossible in any other comparable material, even ivory. And he was thinking of the local community as he designed these pieces: their nature-inspired forms are very close to what the craftsmen can already produce. Hopefully some enterprising craftsperson is already working on Ted Muehling knock-offs!

Yves Behar artfully sidesteps the whole controversy by designing a product that isn’t made of his chosen material at all. Considering his chosen material was cacao beans, this makes sense. He has created a chocolate grater that is to be used with the cacao patties that the women in La Amistad, Costa Rica already make.

The project I found most endearing is Christien Meindertsma’s one-flock rug that is knitted with felted wool. Her storytelling is engaging, certainly, with all her talk about one-sheep sweaters and one-sheep rug units that come together to make a flock. But the technique is nothing to scoff at either, because it is an innovative way of looking at both felting and knitting. It could have a much wider impact: there are communities of expert felt craftspeople in India, for example, who could go wild with the idea.

The other projects fail to lesser or greater degrees, as far as efficacy is concerned. Even Abbot Miller’s own plywood chairs fall short, with their awkward use of a truly beautiful joinery detail. Why would Ezri Tarazi spend so much effort boring though the nodes of bamboo only to create structurally weak hollow columns, when societies all over Asia have been using bamboo far more successfully for millennia? His process does not explain this. Kate Spade’s cotton bags with their cosmetic application of carved wooden tiles do not achieve anything new, and neither do the straw bags she designed. Hella Jongerius, at least, is honest enough to admit that chicle rubber defeated her for the purposes of this exhibition. Hopefully a longer engagement with the material will yield better results.

True to its intent, the exhibition does bring the design process to the forefront: due place and emphasis are given to the designer’s sketches and prototypes, and the designers themselves are filmed talking about their process. But it is interesting to note that two of the projects with successful outcomes employ what is essentially a crafts approach towards both materials and communities. Less famous designers and communities with rich craft traditions, in countries like India and South Africa, have already shown the way in this area. Perhaps the curators would have done well to look for those success stories.  To me, all that this exhibition seems to suggest is that design for mass production still has a lot of catching up to do, to use new material in beautiful, useful ways that are also sustainable.

This brings us to the materials of the exhibition itself. Usually, the most wasteful things in exhibitions are the printed panels. In “Design for the Living World”, the panels are made of aluminium, with the images printed directly onto the aluminium substrate using a dye-sublimation process. It is debatable if the reflective surface thus produced adds to the effect of the images or not, but the idea is certainly admirable because aluminium is so easily recycled. What are not admirable are the wooden lattices to which these panels are screwed. Because the size of the aluminium panels is small, each lattice has a number of vertical wooden members. Sure, the wood is FSC certified, but what happens to these blocks once the exhibition stops travelling and closes down? Who will want a lot of long blocks of wood with holes drilled in them? How will they be reused? Is such a temporary use of large amounts of good, construction quality wood justified?  Nobody knows. This is a recurring story: the fibreboard they use in the display cases is made of recycled wooden fibres, but those fibres are trapped in a resin that will make further recycling impossible.

Exhibition design really needs to take a long hard systemic look at sustainability, and this particular exhibition has a few good ideas, but it doesn’t exactly blaze a trail: neither in its design nor in the projects it showcases.

Curators: Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton.
Exhibition Design: Abbott Miller, Jeremy Hoffman, Brian Raby and Kristen Spilman.
Book Design: Abbott Miller and Kristen Spilman.
Website Design: Abbott Miller and Kristen Spilman.
Principal Location Photography: Ami Vitale.


  1. I like the way you have written and analysed each piece.. I would love to see this exhibition.. Although i cant make it there.. lemme see if i can find smth online.. keep writing.. its great to read ..

  2. @ gunj: there are links in the post which will take you to the exhibition's website. thanks for the compliment. keep coming back!


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