National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

Z-20 Concentrated Solar-Power System

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City (May 14, 2010–January 9, 2011)

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The fourth installment of the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Triennial highlights designs that respond to the social and environmental crises of our time. From hand-operated millet threshers made of bicycle parts to solar-powered LED displays to carbon-neutral cities, the exhibition features an impressive array of solutions to contemporary issues.

The challenge of the triennial format is that it necessarily casts a wide net; organization of the resultant "catch" is nearly impossible. Here, the curators opted for eight thematic sections — Energy, Mobility, Community, Materials, Prosperity, Health, Communication, and Simplicity — that are so vague as to become almost meaningless. Although the themes are broad, the conceptual framework for the triennial as a whole is surprisingly limited. The curators are so intent on proving design’s relevance that they lose sight of its consummate role, that of giving form to the world around us. Many of the artifacts on display are fascinating in their ingenuity but are far less spectacular as design objects.

Happily, a handful of projects and products stand out within the jumble. Large-scale models and prototypes offer some of the most satisfying moments. In the Energy section, tiny mirrors across the concave surface of the Z-20 Concentrated Solar-Power System, designed to capture five times the solar energy of a conventional solar cell, transform the space of the gallery. The M10 Kite-Power System’s sleek carbonfiber wing, intended to harness wind power, hangs overhead. Together, the two prototypes offer a powerful testament to such products’ potential to reshape our built environment. Under the Community theme is the ambitious plan of Medellín, Colombia, to inject public buildings and landscapes into its most dangerous neighborhoods, spawning a rebirth of those communities. The city — more than any product — stands as convincing evidence of the transformative power of design.

Z-20 Concentrated Solar-Power System. Ezri Tarazi and Ori Levin, Tarazi Studio. Manufacturer and client: ZenithSolar. Israel, 2009. Photo courtesy ZenithSolar.

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