design for a living world

When I look at the tag inside a t-shirt to find out its origin, that “Made in Bangladesh” label is only telling a tiny part of the story. Sure, the shirt may have been sewn together in Bangladesh, but where was the cotton grown? Where was it spun, woven, and dyed? How many hands touched that one t-shirt in order to be sold in a retail shop in the US?

Design for a Living World, a fairly new exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum developed by The Nature Conservancy, removes the mystery of origin, at least in part, of some of the items we might encounter day to day. It shows us that natural is beautiful and knowing the source and inspiration of design is powerful.

Take, for example, the organic sheep’s wool rug designed and knit by Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. We see the sheep of Lava Lake Ranch in Hailey, Idaho, grazing on pasture. We see the raw materials, the just shorn wool, all balled-up and dirty with brush. And then each subsequent stage of preparation, from the cleaned wool, to the spun yarn, to the giant knitting needles, to the finished product. Many sheep, some farmers, and one woman. There’s no questioning the source, the process, the final product.

Several other materials and products are displayed, showing the region of origin, a peek at the people who are stewards of that land, who harvest the materials, and a profile of the designer. Alaskan salmon skin clothing from Isaac Mizrahi, FSC-certified red maple furniture from Maya Lin, and, my favorite, vegetable ivory jewelry of the Pohnpei ivory nut palm tree from Ted Muehling (manta ray earrings below).

Surrounded by these beautifully executed designs, all as sustainably created as possible, I still left wanting more information. How do these products compare to their conventional counterparts? Considering how (relatively) few steps are required, how few hands touched these products, does that make them more or less accessible to the general public? Of course, the designs on display are not meant to be sold in stores, but how could they serve as models for those that are?

I hope that I’m underestimating the impact this exhibit might have on a young designer, or a seasoned designer looking to turn over a new leaf. And I hope that designers like Isaac Mizrahi, who has churned out (not-so-sustainable) designs for Target, and now Liz Claiborne, will not just see this project as a one-off but as a guide for the goods they design in the years to come.

Design for a Living World
Now through January 4, 2010
Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
2 East 91st Street New York, NY 10128 | 212.849.8400

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