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Tall, green bamboo plants are trained into a dome shape to create a theater
“Nature”, the Cooper Hewitt Triennial, explores how designers are addressing the environment. Bamboo Theater by Xu Tiantian shows how plants can create space in an sustainable way.
Wang Ziling © DnA_Design and Architecture

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How design is being upended by the climate crisis

The new wave of environmentally conscious design is existential and experimental

The Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, a leafy plant with clusters of tiny flowers, used to grow on an island in the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky. No one has seen one in the wild since 1881 and botanists presumed it went extinct in the 1920s when a new dam inundated its habitat. But this year, the blooms came back to life—in a way.

In “Resurrecting the Sublime”—an installation now on view in “Nature”, the Cooper Hewitt’s Design Triennial—a team of artists and scientists genetically engineered a perfume that mimics the scent of the long-gone flower. They analyzed DNA of a dried specimen, isolated the gene sequences that would have likely produced aromatic enzymes, and synthesized the smell molecules.

A person stands in a suspended black metal box, which sprays the scent of an extinct flower produced through genetic engineering
In “Resurrecting the Sublime”, a group of artists and scientists attempted to recreate the smell of extinct flowers.
Chris Gauthier, Cooper Hewitt

The perfume they created was intoxicatingly spicy and sweet—like freshly sliced ginger and licorice. In the museum’s gallery, you step inside a black metal box and wait for it to spritz the faintest whisper of the aroma. I wanted to stand inside all day. But there’s a catch: it’s impossible to replicate the flower’s actual smell.

Even though scientists can reproduce the plant’s smell molecules, there’s no way to know how much of each molecule the plant produced. The sweet smell the artists created is a reminder of all the wonderful things in nature that are gone, never to be experienced again, even in our wildest imaginations and with the most sophisticated technology. In her artist’s statement, Daisy Ginsberg, one of the artists behind the piece, says: “‘Resurrecting the Sublime’ asks us to contemplate our actions, and potentially change them for the future.”

“It’s not just an exhibition; this triennial is a call to action,” Cooper Hewitt director Caroline Baumann said at the opening for “Nature”. “While nature’s allure is as strong as ever for designers, it is now joined by a profound awareness that it is time to change the paradigm.”

Environmentally conscious design has existed for years, but this year it’s different. It’s no longer a fringe conversation. It’s no longer an “oh that’s nice” detail. It’s not just about designing the same things, but making them “eco-friendly.” Designers are responding to the environmental crisis with more nuance, sophistication, and directness than ever before. They’re questioning their roles in an industry that contributes a great deal to the problem. And they’re figuring out where they have the most power to effect change. Climate anxiety is defining our time and now, design. But is it enough to make an impact?

A white, gauzy dress with a blue and brown tie-dye pattern
Natsai Audrey Chieza dyed this garment using microbes instead of resource-consumptive dyes.
Matt Flynn, Cooper Hewitt

The Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial is just one of a number of international environment-focused design exhibitions of 2019. MoMA curator Paola Antonelli organized “Broken Nature”, an exhibition that “traces design’s potential to make reparations for humans’ collapsing social orders and bonds with nature” for the Milan Triennial; she also hosted a symposium in New York on the topic, as well as talks related to design and the environment.

At this year’s Milan Design Fair, the environmental crisis fueled material explorations, like chairs 3D printed from a cornstarch-based plastic, side tables made from recycled shells and feathers, and glazes made from volcanic ash. During this May’s NYCxDesign—the most notable of American design festivals—ruminations about humans and the environment were inescapable, from Wanted Design’s timely “Conscious” theme at its Industry City fair to Times Square, which was temporarily occupied by a prefab solar home and a tiny house made from recycled glass and sand.

At its core, design is about the relationship between humans and the world at large. And right now that relationship is pretty toxic. But practitioners are reaching far and wide through the sciences, technology, engineering, and arts to mend it and make it more harmonious.

“Design at all scales—from architecture to urban planning to products and digital design—can help us find a balance, or at least restore some of the threads that have been severed from the past decades and centuries,” Antonelli said during the “Broken Nature” symposium in January.

Charlotte McCurdy, an interdisciplinary designer based in Brooklyn, thinks designers have the ability to relay what a sustainable future looks like. With a background in economics and international development, she became a designer because it gave her the tools to explore and communicate more ambitious definitions of sustainability.

“Design is a vocabulary through which we negotiate our values and our goals both individually and collectively,” she says. “In this time of escalating uncertainty and existentially threatening challenges, designers have a responsibility to bring that power to bear in charting a path to a livable future.”

A transparent raincoat with a yellow hue made from algae plastic
Charlotte McCurdy’s “After Ancient Sunlight” rain coat is an experiment in algae-based plastics.
Courtesy Charlotte McCurdy

The Cooper Hewitt Triennial exhibited McCurdy’s raincoat from algae-based plastic, which she describes as a carbon-negative material since algae sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. “It’s undeniable that design and designers are complicit in climate change and the efforts to slow the engine of industry and consumption have not been enough,” she says. “What if the problem is not the volume of what we demand and produce but what it is made from? What if our appetite for stuff could be turned into an engine for reversing greenhouse gas emissions? Materials have that potential.”

Materials are also the focus of designer Garrett Benisch, a student in Pratt’s industrial design graduate program. He redesigned the humble ball-point pen to be made entirely out of biosolids—sewage that’s been digested by microorganisms—from the ink to the barrell.

“Because we are engaged with every step of a product’s creation, it is our duty as designers to make decisions that ensure the product is benefiting society and the planet every step of the way,” Benisch tells Curbed.

Benisch and McCurdy are emblematic of a larger wave of practitioners who are centering the environment in their work. “The young generation of designers is more conscious,” Claire Pijoulat and Odile Hainaut, the founders and curators of Wanted Design, told Curbed by email. “They really think differently, envisioning spaces and ways of living that will respect the environment—producing less and better, consuming less and better.”

A person’s hand scribbling on a white piece of paper using a ball point pen
Designer Garrett Benisch redesigned the humble ball point pen using biosolids, or sewage that’s been treated with bacteria.
Courtesy Garrett Benisch

Pijoulat and Hainaut chose the theme of “Conscious” for their exhibition this year to show how design, and design fairs, can be a “platform for a larger conversation, beyond launching new products,” they told Curbed. “If we can have a voice, even a small one, we have to send the right message.”

At Wanted Design, Adrien Testard, a fashion design student at the Écol des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, exhibited his Hors-Champ collection of sustainable garments—a reflection on disappearing agrarian landscapes and cultures in France. Testard is from a family of farmers in a rural village outside of Nantes. Hors-Champ is based on the idea that landscapes reflect culture and the sociologist Henri Mendras’s writings about how the life of peasants has disappeared and transformed into the “job of farming” over generations of industrialization.

Using organic cotton and wool from the South of France, Testard wove his own fabrics to represent plowing fields, and created jacquards whose patterns represent furrows in the land. He dyed his fabrics with natural chestnut and catechu, an extract of acacia trees. The garments include a smock, tunics, pants, jackets, sweatshirts, and accessories with comfortable, drapey fits.

“For me, sustainability is all about comfort: a reassuring cloth that brings back the energy of memories and history,” Testard tells Curbed. “Sustainability isn’t a ‘choice’; it’s a future in symbiosis with nature, and in harmony with users’ desires. This is all about people, faith, values, and intimacy with nature.”

A man stands in a field wearing a long coat that is black with white panels
Adrien Testard’s Hors-Champs collection explores the disappearing life of peasants.
ENSAD Paris, Louise Desnos
A detail of a man wearing a jacket tipping the brim of a ball cap made from rattan
The fabrics represent the landscape of rural France and are hand-woven and dyed.
ENSAD Paris, Louise Desnos

At Whatnot Studio, a department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, work is informed by reflecting on design as objects of cultural production, and refocusing the relationship between humans and their objects. This year, the students investigated what leads to objects becoming obsolete and redesigned items from the past to make them relevant for the present.

Many of the items explored how natural phenomenon could lead to more environmentally sensitive products, like an analog air conditioner made from terra cotta and uses evaporative cooling rather than Freon and electricity to chill the air, and a water purifier that relies on evaporation and condensation.

A group of terra cotta vessels set in a metal tray
Baohua Sheng, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, designed an analog air conditioner that used evaporative cooling for an exhibition that explores obsolescence.
Courtesy Whatnot Studio

Designers are using their work to try and reverse damage already done to the environment, to find ways to make things in less harmful ways, and to communicate calls to action and reasons to care about the problem. The environmental crisis is also showing up in more subtle, but still foundational ways. Jasper Udink ten Cate—founder of Creative Chef Studio, a Dutch practice that creates experiences around food and art—tries to subvert design’s obsession with stuff.

This year, Udink ten Crate and Cisco Schepens, a concept developer at Creative Chef, presented The Composition Table, a set of interactive table settings. The two created a musical composition, then wove the soundwaves from each instrument in the piece onto placemats, napkins, plates, table runners, and a tablecloth. Using a smartphone, users scan the patterns to create their own songs. With this project, and all of his work, Udink ten Crate tries not to make more design that ends up in a waste stream, but use design to enrich experiences in intangible ways.

A person is holding a smartphone over a table with red, blue, and green textiles woven with the patterns of sound waves
Creative Chef Studio’s Composition Table is an interactive experience in which people can scan sound patterns that an algorithm then converts into a song.
Creative Chef Studio

“I really think that an object can be more than just stuff. If it is well made with thoughtfulness and a feeling behind it, it can become a story, a memory for people who use it, an object that gives you meaningful insight or that asks you a question,” he says. “So sustainability for me is an ingredient to create awareness among users of objects.”

In May, the United Nations released a report about the unprecedented decline of the planet’s biodiversity due to human activity: 1,000,000 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” the report said. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a warning that current efforts to slow global warming are not enough to mitigate serious impacts, and essentially issued a plea for global economies to change.

In the United States, manufacturing accounts for nearly 30 percent of all energy use. The global construction industry yields 23 percent of global CO2 emissions. Considering the gravity of the situation, it’s tough to see how a carbon-negative raincoat or a pen made from biosolids can make any difference when chemical factories, cars, and coal power plants continue spewing CO2 into the air. Large, complex systems must change to address the environmental crisis. Beyond showing us what sustainable future that may or may not happen, these environmentally-oriented designs are giving us more reasons to elect politicians who actually have the power and will to enact broad-sweeping change.

“We’re all working on this, artists, curators, writers, we’re all trying our best,” Antonelli told Dezeen. “The only ones that are completely deaf are the powers that be that are supposed to legislate and help us put things in motion.”

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