A year ago I told myself that social design would thrive in reverse proportion to the stock market. As soon as the Dow hit 10,000, I suspected, designers would abandon their humanitarian projects and resume work on $6,000 pendants. So much for the wisdom of a cynic. The Dow now gyrates above 10,600 and social design is thriving. Where's the evidence? In May the Cooper-Hewitt will show more than 100 do-gooder designs in its National Design Triennial. The Cooper-Hewitt is a branch of the Smithsonian, which gives the show more weight than it otherwise might have.
The Cooper-Hewitt helped put social design on the map three years ago with "Design For The Other 90%," a show of water filters, low-tech cooking devices and other products for the developing world. It was an early landmark in design's recent shift from consumerism to social causes.
Last year, in "Design For A Living World," the Cooper-Hewitt and The Nature Conservancy asked ten prominent designers—Maya Lin, Yves Behar, Hella Jongerius, among others—to create products using materials that support, rather than deplete, the people and places that produce them. The show included a dress made of discarded salmon skin by Isaac Mizrahi (above).
Social Design has been criticized in some quarters for its naiveté: however well-intentioned, design solutions drafted in San Francisco or Cambridge too often fail to grasp the realities of life in refugee camps and shanty towns. Whatever its drawbacks, the field will get a boost of visibility on May 14 when the Cooper-Hewitt opens its Triennial with 125 designs "addressing human and environmental problems" across eight categories. Below, a sampling of items from the show by category:
Energy: bioWave is an enormous underwater turbine that collects energy by swaying with currents and tidal streams.
Community: The Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta is an environmentally friendly theater that allows Oslo residents access to the waterfront.
Materials: Fashion designer Martin Margiela makes couture clothing from used objects.
Prosperity: A British group called Practical Action helps Sudanese women build an efficient stove using clay modeled around a cooking pot.
Health: Timothy Prestero of Design That Matters created a cheap neonatal incubator using spare car parts. A car alarm sounds in emergencies and headlights provide warmth.
Communication: David Chavez made a prototype for a Braille wristwatch with a stainless steel case and rubber strap.
Simplicity: The Cabbage Chair by Oki Sato is made out of waste paper.