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The future of design is tactile, aromatic, and euphonious

As a new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt demonstrates, designing for senses beyond sight is more inclusive and more fun

A visitor interacts with Snow Storm, a special commission by Christopher Brosius, currently on view in "The Senses: Design Beyond Vision."
A visitor interacts with Snow Storm, a special commission by Christopher Brosius, currently on view in "The Senses: Design Beyond Vision."
Scott Rudd, Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

A wall wrapped in plush obsidian-black fur, scratch-and-sniff wallpaper perfumed with cherry, a minimalist color-coded bathroom, a speaker that’s a dead ringer for a satellite dish —these aren’t novelty design. They’re hints to the house of the future, which is all about multi-sensory experiences.

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York City, is a survey of sensory design, or design that appeals to all of our senses: touch, smell, sound, taste, and vision. While most of the world is designed for sight, this exhibition acknowledges that humans process the world using multiple senses. The Senses invites museum-goers to run wild and explore using all of them.

Visitors interact with the Tactile Orchestra, created by Studio Roos Meerman and KunstLAB Arnhem, currently on view in "The Senses: Design Beyond Vision."
Scott Rudd, Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

“Across all industries and disciplines, designers are avidly seeking ways to stimulate our sensory responses to solve problems of access and enrich our interactions with the world,” Cooper Hewitt Director Caroline Baumann said in a news release.

The Senses takes place a few floors up from Access + Ability, the Cooper Hewitt exhibition (rightfully) advocating for accessible design as a right, not a privilege. Together they show how designing for all of our abilities and senses not only leads to environments that work better for more people, but also environments that are also more exciting, enriching, and tantalizing than the purely visual defaults we usually experience. Inclusive design is the just and equitable thing to do; it’s also the more fun and appealing thing to do.

Curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps argue that sensory design is inclusive, physical, and experiential, while enhancing health and wellbeing and activating language and memory. They scoured the globe to find the most compelling examples of this philosophy.

These 3D-printed vessels under the glass vitrine are made from, and smell like, sugar.
Scott Rudd, Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Some of what they turned up leans conceptual: The Bay Area studio Emerging Objects’ vessels forged from flamingo-pink sugar (with the scent of cotton candy) and cups 3D-printed from cocoa-brown coffee grounds (as aromatic as you’d expect) are destined to be thought-provoking museum vitrines and not kitchen essentials.

Kollektiv Plus Zwei’s oh-so-touchable furniture made from industrial materials—think foam insulation and concrete—done up like confections is suited more for an eccentric collector and your average Ikea shopper. However, real-world applications lurk between the experiments.

The Dementia Care Bathroom Setting by HEWI is color-coded to help people with Alzheimers navigate the space.
Courtesy HEWI

Barber & Osgerby’s Tip-ton chair is intentionally off-kilter to help correct posture and activate certain muscles when you sit. Hewi’s color-coded fixtures are designed to help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s navigate bathrooms. Ode, a timed scent diffuser, disperses food aromas to stimulate appetites of people with dementia.

A graphic display explains Deaf Space, or how architects can create spaces that function better for people with hearing impairment. Interested in alarm fatigue—a phenomenon where health care providers are desensitized to noise hospital alarms make, affecting the quality of care patients receive—Man Made Music redesigned machine noises (think heart rate monitors and code blue alerts) to make them more harmonious all together. They’re beginning to pilot this with a few providers to test how it works.

This assistive tableware is color coded and ergonomically designed to help elderly people with dementia eat.
Courtesy of Sha Yao

Sensory design has the potential to remake the world so it works better for more people, the ability to make us more aware about how our brain perceives and processes information, and the capacity to create more stimulating environments. (Even high-end design studios at Milan Design Week are showing an interest in this realm.) Considering that most of us probably spend our days transfixed by tiny glass screens in sterile offices, the bumpy, smelly, and sonic environments that sensory design yields are a welcome alternative.

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision is on view at the Cooper Hewitt through October 2018.