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.