Too Virtuous

The latest Triennial is long on good intentions but short on sex appeal.

The fourth go-round of the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Triennial, a major event that is to design what the Whitney Biennial is to art, purports to answer the question Why Design Now? The answer it supplies is the obvious one. The show “celebrates the transformative power of design,” meaning that it’s all about design that addresses social and environmental challenges. In a way, it’s extraordinarily timely. As the exhibition opened in mid-May, we were in the midst of a design crisis from hell, the oil-spewing aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly, the world needs saving. And I can’t argue that our painfully slow transition from a society built on fossil fuels to something cleaner isn’t the biggest design problem ever, something that deserves the full attention of a major exhibition. Yes, we could surely use that water-powered hotel by the Dutch architect Thomas Rau, and it would be wonderful if Makani Power made high-altitude kite turbines work. And it’s entirely appropriate that the only shiny object in this whole show is a solar array designed by an Israeli firm, Tarazi Studio.

I should be thrilled, because I’ve been going on for decades about how design should be more socially engaged. Indeed, as I wandered through the exhibition, encountering products cleverly crafted from discarded palm leaves and recycled shoelaces, I was reminded of a talk I gave with Tibor Kalman in 1992, at the Cooper-Hewitt–sponsored “Edge of the Millennium” conference, in which we called for the end of design. “Design has become the profession of solving very small problems,” we proclaimed. “Larger problems are left unsolved because everybody is too busy designing.” Well, this is it. This Triennial represents the end of design that Tibor and I argued for, nearly 20 years ago. The end is here!

But as I stood in the first gallery of the Triennial, reading the wall text, I hit this passage: “The exhibition itself is an exercise in environmentally responsible design.” I read on and learned that the museum and exhibition designers, Tsang Seymour, used “eco-safe materials, modular components, simple mounting techniques, and materials-reduction strategies.” In the deep, dark-brown gallery of the late-19th-century mansion, I saw a long line of corrugated-cardboard and particleboard pedestals—brown on brown on brown—topped with simple, well-intentioned objects: a clay stove designed to make life easier for the people of Darfur; a bamboo-and- rattan bicycle trailer created to improve the lives of Indian women; a wooden radio to help struggling Indonesian farmers make more money. It was all decent, virtuous stuff.

The problem was: I really hated it. The seamless do-gooder quality of the exhibition made me claustrophobic. What I saw all around me was the far end of an arc; design had gone from sexy fluff, a parade of Swarovski-studded chaises, to monastic plainness. I couldn’t help thinking that the pendulum had swung too hard, too fast.

Walking through a design exhibition in which almost everything represents big-ticket problem-solving, I felt as if I were revisiting the 1970s, the Carter years, when I lived in the hippie-saturated, ultra-PC Pacific Northwest. At the Cooper-Hewitt, I was surrounded by what Bruce Sterling calls “hairshirt-green”: an approach where serious problem-solving demands a fierce austerity, and aesthetic niceties are regarded as suspect. As much as this show embodies au-courant goodness, there is something wrong about a design exhibition in which there is so little pleasure. Transformational design, to truly transform, has to inspire.

If the design had to be dun-colored, earth-toned, or functionalistic to the point of ugliness, shouldn’t the display strategy have somehow compensated? In another context, I might admire the Tsang Seymour approach. Its little concrete-block boundary markers were charmingly minimalist. If this were a show about, say, delicate glassware or gemstones, the ascetic staging would be just the thing to emphasize the beauty of the objects on display. But these objects cried out for heavy contextualization. The display needed to invite you to look long and hard; the beauty here took time and effort to see. And much of what was here required more explanation than snippets of text on pieces of cardboard can offer. Sometimes the text did answer the question “Why?” but never “How?” What does a bicycle-powered millet thresher actually do? How exactly does that condom applicator work? At the center of one gallery was a cluster of life-saving gadgets—an incubator fashioned from car parts, body armor designed for land-mine removal. These objects didn’t speak for themselves; they needed interpretation. The exhibition catalog, designed by Pentagram, did a better job of explaining what things were and how they might be used. It’s not just that there was more room for text—there were also additional images. One showed, for example, the somewhat baffling Honda-manufactured Bodyweight Support Assist device—a combination of a bar stool and a prosthetic leg—used by assembly-line workers.

But the real problem wasn’t the restrained nature of the exhibition design. It was the tight, restrictive focus of the curators, Ellen Lupton, Cara McCarty, Matilda McQuaid, and Cynthia Smith. Past Triennials have been loosely framed by geography—they were showcases of American design—but were otherwise unrestrained romps across aesthetic and functional categories. This show was wide-open, geographically. In the catalog, the curators reason that the Triennial had to be global because of the “growing connectedness of design practices and the need for international cooperation to solve the world’s problems.” True enough. Design, however, has long been an international discipline. The design press, until fairly recently, routinely looked to other countries for influential work. What was once refreshing about the Triennial was its American focus, but Europe and Asia dominated this year’s show. The show expanded globally but shrunk conceptually. Virtue is a one-note proposition.

What I learned at this Triennial was the value of frivolity. In a design exhibition, eye candy is essential, if only because it throws the serious stuff into relief. An Important Exhibition doesn’t have to be a sober one. Recall the Museum of Modern Art’s Design and the Elastic Mind, from 2008, a furiously busy, intensely cerebral exploration of the spots where science and design overlapped. I remember walking away from the show feeling that the powers of design had expanded, that radical change was bubbling up all around me.

Seven years ago, I reviewed the 2003 Triennial for this magazine. It was the year the Iraq war began, and prospects for the future seemed grim. There was no hope of our government’s backing innovation of any kind, yet the objects on display suggested boundless possibility. “The world of the triennial is the optimistic, upbeat place we thought we left behind around the turn of the millennium,” I wrote. “It’s a version of the twenty-first century we’ve yet to actually experience.” Today, the 21st century—complex, fascinating, contradictory, and terrifying—is well under way. We’re roughly ankle-deep in a reinvention of the man-made world. This year’s disaster in the Gulf underscores the urgency of that reinvention but also suggests that there might be some limits to the magic of design. Maybe we can’t design our way out of every problem. Given that this world-saving project may or may not work out, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that other aspect of design, the one involving pure, dumb pleasure.

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