The Oscars of Design

If you want a look at the many ways in which extraordinary design has now permeated our lives, be sure to put the Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibit, “Design Life Now,” on your list of ‘must-sees’ if you’re in New York.

The show, which is the third triennial the national design museum has held, opens to the public on December 8. It features the work of 87 designers and firms, chosen to represent four principal ideas that characterized the design world in the past three years: emulating life; community; hand-craft and do-it-yourself; and transformation.

The designs chosen range from the frivolous to the fraught. There’s weird and wacky fashion, from industry luminaries like Narciso Rodriguez (best known for designing Carolyn Bessett Kennedy’s wedding gown) and Ralph Rucci, to crazy garb that looks like it was pulled out of a laundry bag and put on in the dark by Tom Scott, and menswear with shrunken pants by Thom Brown.

There are playful little Japanese robots, robots that will clean your house, and robots that are ringers for Albert Einstein, right down to the tufted eyebrows. There are architectural models of amazing structures, from the Sundial bridge by Santiago Calatrava to the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas, to Ken Smith's rooftop garden at MOMA.

There are wonderful lighting fixtures, from a hand-blown lamp etched with words from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (that then become shadows on the wall) by LA designer Alison Berger, to a massive Swarovski crystal chandelier by Tobias Wong.

There’s deadly serious stuff from the "Lemurs" —- Legged Excursion mechanical Utility Rovers — developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs to a the Lifeport Kidney Transporter (that looks a little like a souped-up cooler you'd take to a tailgate party) designed by Organ Recovery Systems.

There are many products informed by the idea of biomimicry, from Nike's shoes that emulate the foot running barefoot, and Joseph Ayers' Robolobster, that recognizes changes in seawater, much like its living counterpart.

And so much more.

It’s a Santa’s sack of design goodies, arranged in no particular order that I could discern, that meanders through three floors of the museum’s elegant building on E.91st Street.

Delicious as it is, this show requires some work on the part of the viewer for maximum impact. Many of the objects’ wondrousness is only apparent after reading the wall signage, some of which is written in the usual irritating museum-speak. Take the write-up for Niels Diffrient’s chair for Humanscale, for example…”He used a non-stretch textile whose contours do not deform under load, and displace appropriately for users of various sizes.” Why not just say the chair works fine both for those broad of beam and those with bony butts? Wouldn't that be a breath of fresh air?

Plus, it’s often difficult to match the labels with the objects, making the experience more than a little frustrating — especially when good design is the point of the whole exercise.

So, the best advice is to go when the crowds are thin enough to be able to read without jostling for space, and to leave enough time to do more than barrel through. The rewards are rich and wondrous, funny, inspiring, and ingenious.

If you can't get to New York, the exhibit has a very fine catalog that will let you revel in all these goodies from the comfort of your own home.

What more could a design junkie want?

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