Design for a Living World: New potential for unusual materials

Sheep's wool and pearls, fish skins and FSC-certified cedarwood are just some of the raw materials focused on by the exhibition "Design for a Living World". The exhibition concept, which curators Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller developed together with the Cooper-Hewitt and "The Nature Conservancy" environmental protection organisation, brings 10 designers, 10 materials and 10 locations together. And these pairings, some of which are exotic to say the least, are what the actual attraction is. The Netherlands designer Hella Jongerius, for instance, travelled to Yucatán in Mexico in order to experiment with "Chicle" latex. The viscous sap of the rubber tree, otherwise used as a raw material for chewing gum production, was used by her as an "adhesive" for making tower-like ceramic sculptures. Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, created a bench made of FSC-certified wood from the US federal state of Maine. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi designed a dress made of the skin of salmon caught in Alaska. And the industrial designer Ezri Tarazi created a whole series of cloakroom stands and other storage furniture made of bamboo harvested in Yunnan province in China. The design of the young Netherlands designer Christien Meindertsma makes especially intensive use of materials: her wool carpet is composed of hexagonal modules, for each of which three and a half pounds of wool were needed – the "yield" of a whole sheep from the US state of Idaho. "Design for a Living World" confronts the exhibition visitor not only with "finished" designs but makes their entire genesis visible. For each object, a video was made, documenting the creation process – including the struggles that some designers had with the intractable materials. Numerous provisional design sketches give an inkling of how the designers approached the task they were entrusted with.

Even the exhibition design of Abbott Miller is in line with the organizer's wish for sustainability. Instead of walls made of plasterboard, Miller used open staggered panels that were made of FSC-certified wood and used up less material. The large-format picture boards of photo-journalist Ami Vitale show the respective places of origin of the materials and were not printed on paper and then stuck to plastic panels but were directly applied to aluminium panels with the dye sublimation printing technique. These can be recycled and also last longer – an important factor given that the exhibition is to start touring at some time in the future.

"Design for a Living World" can be seen until 4 January 2010 in the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in 2 East 91st Street in New York.
Sustainable product design and a hint of the exotic are combined in the new exhibition entitled "Design for a Living World" in the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York. Ten internationally known designers were asked by the curators to develop some thoughts on unusual materials and the places from where they originate.
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