Isaac Mizrahi contemplates the environment.

There is an oft-discussed, twisted logic to the ethos of ecological consumerism. We feel compelled to reduce our destructive impact on the environment, but doing so (as advertisements tell us) requires purchasing a new battery of “green” products, sometimes when old ones would have done just fine. The decision mirrors the rationale for going into The Container Store—I would have less stuff if I just had more places to put it.

This is a simplified view of things, of course. Anyone who has read Cradle-to-Cradle (McDonough and Braungart, 2002) has probably felt, if only briefly, the intoxicating possibility that industries can be ecologically recalibrated at a fundamental level. With these two approaches in mind, the new “Design for a Living World” exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York, presents an interesting set of problems. Is it an indication of a change in thinking? A top-down reorientation of priorities in design’s use of materials? Or is it simply a self-congratulatory exercise within a self-contained field?

The exhibition’s premise is to link top-tier designers with a regional, sustainably harvested material from one of the stewardships of the Nature Conservancy, co-sponsor of the exhibition. The most publicized example is the pairing of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi with Alaskan “salmon leather,” fish skins usually discarded during food processing. (Mizrahi created a dress and jacket covered with salmon leather “paillettes”—small circles of the material hand-sown into a foundation garment.)

Abbott Miller, partner at Pentagram and co-curator of the exhibition (with his wife and Cooper-Hewitt curator, Ellen Lupton), said the process of matching designers often stemmed from their proclivities to use certain materials. This type of matchmaking meant that many designers had a material relation, rather than any sort of historical or cultural understanding, of a region. The designers swooped down into a remote, beautiful slice of earth, spent a few days soaking in local culture, and then traveled back to their atelier to spin twine into gold.

Abbott Miller's chairs, made of FSC-certified Bolivian plywood.

And that’s why I’m still unsure what the point of the show was. Miller, in addition to curating and designing the show, created a chair after visiting a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified plywood-manufacturing facility in Bolivia. The result is a collection of CNC (computer numerical control)-milled shapes that are spliced together into a vaguely modernist form—Jean Prouvé is a primary influence. He told me he had visited a trade school in Bolivia that was making simple, utilitarian furniture (school desks and the like) using the same CNC technology, and that the chair’s sitting surface—wound cotton that bridges the two depthless profiles—reminded him of the improvisatory, informal construction he saw in Bolivia.

But it’s not clear how these conceptual pieces add up to a whole. The project is nice—Miller told me it was the first chair he had designed—but it lacks any particular knowledge of chair construction, Bolivian culture, or ecological issues with plywood. The phantom in all of this is the facility of digital fabrication, which was the primary driver of the design; Miller was thinking in terms possibilities of the machine, which works in two-dimensional planes (below). The result resonates with his graphic design work at Pentagram—“I like that it returns to its origins in graphics,” he said—but that quality betrays the design's self-referencing quality and it doesn't engage the larger ecological questions presented by the show.



 The remnants of the plywood versus CNC-router duel.

This tension is also present in the exhibition’s design, also the work of Miller and Pentagram. Everything is done with beautiful, clear graphics, but the result is, like most of the projects, an aesthetic approach to a practical problem. Its language is that of a typical design show—large beautiful photographs, precious study models and sketches, and not very much information. The gestures toward sustainability in the exhibition design are similar to the tactics of the projects exhibited—responsible material use (FSC-certified hardwood, recyclable aluminum panels for text and graphics) without any sacrifice of aesthetic purity. These are old answers to new questions and it seems to imply that if we just lightly alter our use of materials we can keep on the same track.

Maya Lin's Terra bench.

On artistic terms, the designers did produce some remarkable pieces, the best of which is Maya Lin’s bench, carved from FSC-certified maple wood from northern Maine. Instead of cutting the wood in flat planes, Lin preserved slices of the exterior curvature of the tree trunk through a series of lateral cuts, revealing the irregularities of the tree, which humans must constantly flatten into rectilinear planes for their own use. It is a contained, poetic proposition, bringing into relief the imposition of human thought onto the natural world.

In the end, though, the exhibition is a series of singular episodes. None of these products are in production and none will change the world. Some engage the challenges on a thoughtful level (Lin, Stephen Burks), some answer questions they were interested in, anyway (Miller), and some just produce beautiful objects, without apologies (Mizrahi, jewelry-designer Ted Muehling). But even the best projects, inextricable from the jet-setting culture of internationally successful designers, don’t begin to answer the show’s (and the world’s) much more troubling and endemic problems. Asking for another approach, however, is probably the same as asking for another discipline.

Design for a Living World” is open until January 4, 2010 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.