It’s strange to think that just a few years ago, it felt as if design schools and studios nationwide must have been holding special screenings of “The Graduate.” Down the aisles of Target, in the pages of Dwell and the showrooms of SoHo, there was nary a natural material in sight: the future was plastic.
“Plastic was the material that I naively knew was the material of our contemporary world, even at the age of 10,” the designer Karim Rashid said in a 2006 interview. Rashid has certainly been plastic’s most high-profile ambassador, using it for everything from dish-soap containers to the (then) ubiquitous $7 “Garbino” trashcans that made him famous. Many other designers were similarly enamored with the way plastic could become any color or shape, and though products made from the material were offered at all price ranges, plastic delivered on the popular premise of good design for all because it could be used to create on the cheap. Though our connected culture would be lost without it, plastic assumes a radically different role in the design world: its most high-profile usage of late comes not in throwaway consumer goods but rather in the form of the 12,500 plastic bottles (that’s about the same number consumed every 8.3 seconds in the United States) used to build the Plastiki, a wind-blown, solar-powered boat currently sailing from San Francisco to Australia, stopping at environmental hot spots like the roughly Texas-sized North Pacific Garbage Patch or Pacific Gyre along the way. The goal of the Plastiki voyage is to encourage people to re-think waste: according to Project Aware, 15 billion pounds of plastic are produced in the U.S. every year, for example, but only 1 billion pounds are recycled.
It would be overstating things to say that Plastiki is helping chart a new course for design, but the vessel and the voyage do provide a nice departure point for discussing the place the discipline finds itself today. Though the expedition leader, David de Rothschild, has in many ways been the face of Plastiki, the project as a whole speaks to the reality of collaboration versus individual creation. The Plastiki site acknowledges a team including diver, documentarian, boat builder and solar array designer. Designers like Philippe Starck may have turned their attention to things like wind turbines now, but most design efforts these days, whether for iPods or affordable apartments, seem to be very much the product of teams. Coming off an era where designers assumed the role of artist/auteur, that’s a big shift. Plastiki, in engaging with a host of environmental technologies and issues, also mirrors a broad cultural shift in design’s focus. Design now exists less to shape objects than to produce solutions. Instead of creating a desire and designing an object to fulfill it, a designer spotlights a problem or need and solves it. The latter has not completely displaced the former, but it has become the prevailing discourse. So it’s fitting that the newest edition of the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial questions the purpose — and future — of the discipline with an exhibit called “Why Design Now?” The Triennial, which opened in mid-May, assuages any fears surrounding the capabilities of natural materials. In fact, inventiveness around unremarkable stuff from sunflowers to banana stems has resulted in numerous greener alternatives to plastic on display here, including Bananaplac, an alternative to hardwood and Formica, produced from banana fibers extracted when the fruit is harvested; AgriPlast, made from field grass and polystyrene; Kraftplex, a 100 percent biodegradable fiberboard made from sustainably harvested soft wood fibers, water, pressure and heat; and Flax, a natural fiber typically used to make linen but transformed by designer Francois Azambourg into high-performing recyclable furniture like the Lin94 Chair. But new materials are always being introduced, and their inclusion here is just a small part of a much larger story.
“Why Design Now?” is an important show because design is in a strange place. One always hears talk about the need to not reinvent the wheel; well, the design community — some of it, anyway — has realized the need to stop reinventing the chair. This is not to suggest that design should fully move away from making things — and indeed, the Cooper Hewitt show is chock full of smartly conceived, necessary objects like the AdSpecs, low-cost corrective eyeglasses with lenses the user can adjust to his or her own individual prescriptions; the Modular Prosthetic Limb System, created by a multi-disciplinary team culled from more than 30 American, Canadian and European organizations, and the Zon hearing aid by Stuart Karten Design, a minimalist accessory rendered so elegantly as to erase any need for self-consciousness on the part of the wearer. There are thoughtful, beautiful ones as well, like Karinelvy Design’s blown glass Gripp glasses, so graceful one might not even notice they were designed to function for anyone, even people with limited hand function, and Alabama Chanin’s hand-sewn garments that favor local commerce over overseas production.
The show actively engages with the question designers both emerging and established must ask today: If not objects, what? It’s a dilemma closely mirroring that of the larger American economy, which has been shifting steadily from manufacturing to service. In response, design schools are scrambling to offer curricula that moves away from what Jon Kolko describes as “the Bauhaus, form-giving stuff.” Kolko, founder of the Austin Center for Design, a newly formed educational institution that “exists to transform society through design and design education,” believes that our recession-weary era is absolutely ready for this sort of work to thrive. “All the travesty and direness is making all the right things happen,” he says. “Kids today don’t care about the big house, the big salary. At the heart of their value system is ‘I want to make a difference.’” With an eye to contributing to the greater good, practitioners might design a game, a process, procedure or experience. For example, Emily Pilloton founded the non-profit design collective Project H (the “h” stands for humanity, habitats, health and happiness) after a demoralizing stint designing doorknobs. The 28-year-old now designs projects like the Learning Landscape, which takes a creative approach to math education by installing a public sculpture-like grid of half-submerged tires as a setting for math games. Another example might be Participle, which bills itself as a public service design firm, and has developed and prototyped new services to help combat social isolation and loneliness among the elderly.
In showcasing the work of Pilloton and many of her peers, this year’s version of the Triennial feels very much of a piece with another Cooper Hewitt exhibit presented in 2007, “Design for the Other 90%” (now on view at the National Geographic Society Museum, Washington, D.C., through September). The low-cost innovations in health, shelter, energy and transport for the 5.8 billion people globally with little or no access not only to most products and services but also to food, shelter or clean water have become the sort of things young designers want to engage with today. (Though creating smart business models for this work may be the most challenging of design projects they could undertake.) “Why Design Now?” might well have been called “What Should Designers Do Now?”