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'Why design now?' explores ways to solve problems with innovative design.

Solving problems with sustainable – and beautiful – design is the focus of a new exhibition in New York.

By Staff writer / June 21, 2010

The ecoefficient Oslo Opera House, in Norway, combines open communal public space with waterfront access.

Photo Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

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New York

Timothy Prestero designed a baby incubator for hospitals in the developing world that could be made cheaply from Toyota truck parts. Mallory Taub and fellow students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created an inexpensive, easy-to-build dome using locally made bricks. John Todd's Eco-Machine, in use in more than 100 locations, provides a sustainable alternative to traditional wastewater treatment, a natural system that's not only practical but beautiful.

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Visitors exploring the wide-ranging "Why Design Now?" exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City are likely to come away in awe of how designers such as these are employing their creativity to become 21st-century problem-solvers.

This year's triennial, the fourth in a series that appears every three years at the museum, breaks new ground by going beyond the work of US designers, highlighting 134 projects from 44 countries.

IN PICTURES: Designs from "Why Design Now?" at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

The show, which opened May 14, focuses on the way design can help solve pressing world needs.

"I think design is going to be the major tool of this century to help solve many of these problems," says Cara McCarty, curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt and one of four curators who pulled the enormous project together. "Good design can push people's thinking. This show is tackling issues that go way beyond our borders."

Organized around eight themes – energy, mobility, community, materials, prosperity, health, communication, and simplicity – "Why Design Now?" gives a passing nod to the innovative design expressed by a few iconic consumer items launched in the last three years – the multitasking iPhone; the Kindle wireless reader; and Twitter, the online social network.

But most of the exhibits will surprise, perhaps startle, and in some cases delight viewers.

"Design is about optimism," Ms. McCarty says. "Design is finding solutions. This is not a doom-and-gloom show."

Labels for each work answer why it is in the show – what makes it unique and useful in the world. While most of the objects are in production and available to buy, some are still prototypes. Many express a combination of both beauty and utility – while also embracing the need to be environmentally responsible.

"Today, as designers strive to simplify production processes and consume fewer materials in smaller amounts," notes the exhibition catalog, "the quest for simplicity is shaping design's economic and ethical values as well as its sense of beauty."

For example, when in use, the Power Aware Cord glows a soothing ice blue. But it also reminds the user that whatever device it is attached to is consuming electricity. The Cobi office chair combines elegant design and comfort with the ultimate in reuse: It can be completely recycled.

The bioWAVE Ocean-wave Energy System, a prototype from Australia shown only on video, looks to the motion of the natural world for inspiration. Attached to the seabed, it would rock gently in tune with ocean currents, mimicking swaying sea grass and seaweed. Each unit could produce up to 2 megawatts of power. A field of such machines would become a sizable undersea power plant.

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