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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.

For all of us who care about our planet, this attention to making things better is music to our ears. The problem is, our eyes never get the message. Just from looking, you could never guess the green ideals behind most of these objects. They don't look much different from the ones that got us in trouble in the first place.

Glancing around at the Cooper-Hewitt, you could almost be at ICFF, or any design show from the past 50 years. Nearly all its objects deploy more or less the same Jetsonian stylings that "new" design has promoted in the modern age. A netbook computer, designed for the world's underprivileged, is made of glitzy-green plastic. Those high-rise farm buildings might as well be from the cover of "Amazing Stories," circa 1960. Barely a single designer seems to realize that for an object to make a real difference, it needs to have symbolic as well as practical force.

The symbolism of modern design was all about helping to move product. Designs by Bauhaus masters and their heirs, including those on show in the triennial, help us find pleasure in consumption, with the idea that owning more of the right things can inmprove the world. Modernism's glossy, factory-fresh forms dispel all doubts about the virtues of modern technology.

This is just what truly new design, out on Waxman's cutting edge, will have to combat. It obviously can't hope to do away with objects -- that ascetic, Luddite ideal is as far-fetched and obnoxious as anything embraced by the prophets of technology. What design can do is give us a new sense of the moral weight that every object comes freighted with. It's what Waxman does with her ceramic bowls. A few figures in the triennial also achieve it.

A Dutch designer named Jetske de Groot designs chairs made from usable scraps of other chairs that have broken. She mates a chromed bottom with a turned-wood top, the base of a bar stool with the back of a task chair. But rather than covering up the awkward moments where two chairs meet, de Groot emphasizes them, by fixing the joints with huge wads of colored epoxy.

This mix-and-match look isn't just a novel aesthetic -- it's a new aesthetic that talks, as loudly as possible, about the need to reduce, reuse and recycle. De Groote's hand-glued furniture may have a limited circulation, but it spreads ideas in a way that a sleek modernist chair never could, however eco-friendly its materials. Selling 50,000 seats made of flax and bio-resin does little good for our future if it doesn't also send the message that buying fewer seats would be a still better thing.

Even ICFF included plenty of "green" materials and objects. But their ecological conscience was being used as just another selling point.

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Good contemporary design ought to help us put on the brakes. It needs to have a hint of difficulty built into it, as fine art has since at least the time of C├ęzanne. A central issue in much of modern art has been the questioning of art itself. Contemporary design could also cast doubt on its field. Design may never really move forward until it embraces the option of an off-putting ugliness.

For design objects fully dedicated to that mission, I had to come back to Washington. This summer, the National Geographic Museum is presenting a touring Cooper-Hewitt show called "Design for the Other 90%." As its title suggests, it's about designing for all of the people in the world left behind by mass consumption.

A few of the objects are Jetsonian: A filter, made to let you suck water straight from a dirty pond, is made from the same blue plastics as a Braun electric toothbrush. But many other objects keep their small-is-beautiful ideals on view. A foot-powered water pump is made of local bamboo, accepting that the best of objects can be -- and should look -- cobbled together.

Mohammed Bah Abba's "Pot-in-Pot Cooler" simply puts one locally made clay pot inside another, with wet sand in between to provide evaporative cooling. In Nigeria, he claims, that can stretch the life of a farmer's tomato from two to 20 days. Just as importantly, it sends the visible message that improvisation -- low-tech, low-carbon and local -- can count as more "beautiful," and certainly as more important, than any design from ICFF.

In those terms, the most "beautiful" design objects I've seen weren't in a show at all. I came across them on my morning run, in an empty lot beside the Children's Studio School near 13th and V streets NW. This spring, six vintage bathtubs -- two pink, two blue and two white -- were put to use as planters in the schoolkids' vegetable garden. According to parent Brandi Redo, the garden's wooden planters had rotted out over the winter, and the school was trying to dream up a cheap replacement with good drainage when some students piped up: "Well, bathtubs have drains." Redo and another parent went hunting at Community Forklift, the nonprofit that recycles construction supplies, and sure enough, "the first thing that we saw was bathtubs that they were trying to get rid of quickly," Redo remembers, at $10 or $15 each.

The arts-themed school is dedicated to reuse -- kids there use trash to make sculpture -- so the bathtubs were a perfect fit. More than that, from this critic's point of view, they achieve a quirky new look that lets its principles show.

Such aesthetics are still a hard sell. "I imagine that the teachers will want to beautify the tubs," says Redo. She explains that two classes already have plans to hide their planters' bathtubness under shiny mosaic or tile.

That way, those planters will look more like something that you'd want to buy. And less like something that we need to have.


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