Designs too good to waste: Looking at Cooper-Hewitt's 'Why Design Now?' and more

While many design trends have a negative environmental impact -- from large houses that eat up energy to cars that pollute the air -- a new guard of designers is taking an eco-friendly, conscientious approach that rejects consumerism.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Here is a hard truth about 21st-century Americans: "You have no culture. All you guys do is buy things."

At least that was the constant complaint that Sarah Waxman, a design student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, heard during her junior year abroad. Contemplating those charges put her in a quandary: Her new field was all about promoting a culture of buying.

The designs Waxman submitted for her senior-year class tried to lock horns with the problem.

She made a cast-ceramic wallet that asks you to consider "the things that you're consuming in the act of being a purchaser." Its strange heft in your pocket, its fragility, the unease in its use (you have to pull off a rubber strap to get at your money) makes the act of buying feel vexed. She created a strange cast-ceramic bowl: It looks just like the industrial molds that ceramic housewares are cast in, complete with seams and registration "keys." The 22-year-old explains that the pieces in her line "are saying that everything you're taking in is manufactured."

Waxman, like few of her peers, is selling a radical new credo for design: That an object built on truly novel, conscientious principles ought to reject the old consumerist ones. It can't look like the high-design objects we've been scarfing up for years. In fact, ambitious designers may need to come up with objects that convince us that not buying them might be the best thing we could do.

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I came across Waxman and her wares one May weekend in New York, in Pratt's booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which bills itself as "a global summit for what's best and what's next in design." The yearly expo is a 145,000-square-foot madhouse of fancy goods -- glass-and-steel tables, LED lamps and gleaming CD racks. (A question: Why do advanced designers insist on making elaborate racks for CDs, fanning them out or motorizing them or clipping onto each one? We already have a perfect rack for CDs. It's called a shelf.)

Nearly every object could have been designed decades ago, when no one knew a Jetsons planet might include melting ice caps. It's as though ICFF, going back to the future, still has one word for us: "plastics."

The polished banalities of ICFF made clear just how far Waxman really is from the the consumer-friendly objects made by most of her colleagues -- even the most touted of them, such as Philippe Starck and Ron Arad. At ICFF, few designers seemed to recognize that fancy consumables are the last thing this planet needs more of.

Our deadliest problems -- environmental, economic and political -- come out of the goods we cherish. Our huge new houses eat up energy, then throw it back into the air as wasted heat and light. Our cars -- as well as our foods, it turns out -- suck in oil and spew out greenhouse gases. Our packaging and products gobble electricity and matter when they're made, then drown the world in trash when thrown out.

The people who designed those goods helped get us into this mess, and now a few are keen to get us out.

Waxman, with her concerned ceramics, might have found company in another roundup of current design that opened the same weekend as ICFF. "Why Design Now?," the fourth design triennial at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, is dedicated to projects with a conscience. There are extension cords that light up to remind you that they're drawing power, and high-style chairs molded out of eco-friendly flax and botanical resins. There are plans for everything from high-rise urban farms, which are still mostly a blue-sky idea, to the high-speed, high-efficiency, recyclable trains about to be deployed in Italy.

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