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Cooper Hewitt’s Nature Triennial Balances Speculative Experimentation with Industry Application

Scouring the globe for recent projects, Nature taps into a new level of environmental awareness among designers, researchers, institutions, and blue-chip companies.

Nature Triennial cooper hewitt
Curiosity Cloud by Austrian design duo mischer’traxler celebrates biodiversity while inviting visitors to meditate on nature’s fragility. The installation is composed of glass bulbs, each containing a handmade insect species that is native to New York. When visitors walk through the installation, the artificial insects flutter. “Entering the exhibition, visitors are immersed in this work and are immediately confronted with the idea that they are experiencing nature within a building,” deputy curatorial director Matilda McQuaid says. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Two recent United Nations reports have painted a bleak picture for the future of the planet. One determines that humanity has less than 12 years to drastically counteract the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The other states that millions of animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction. Together, they come as an urgent call to action that transcends government policies, consumer culture, urbanism, and industrial design. This wake-up call is adding fuel to the fire of a growing design movement—one highlighted at Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial—that’s seeking new ways to rehabilitate humanity’s relationship with nature.

Nature (on view until January 20, 2020) joins a slew of recent exhibitions (including Broken Nature in Milan) on the difficult-yet-crucial subject. (In fact, the Cooper Hewitt’s museum-wide show is mirrored by a sister exhibition at the Cube design museum in Kerkrade, the Netherlands.) Nature present a wide range of global investigations, instigations, and initiatives from all facets of the design industry, encompassing the speculative, collectible, and consumer-based. The exhibition is organized into seven themes: understand, simulate, salvage, facilitate, augment, remediate, and nurture. Nature is diverse, and at times disparate, which each theme featuring seven to eight projects whose focus spans from materials to production, communication, and our underlying relationship with nature.

Despite its far reach, the show’s curators see common threads. “When we began brainstorming for this project three years [ago], we didn’t anticipate how dire these issues would become or how appropriate our curatorial focus would be at the time the triennial opened,” deputy curatorial director Matilda McQuaid explains. “We initially wanted to explore how nature was integral to designers but also the general populous. What we discovered in our research were certain overarching themes. One of which is the idea of collaboration: how creatives work with each other, but also nature; how they transform it and it transforms them.”

Nature Triennial cooper hewitt
Monarch Sanctuary by Terreform ONE is a new architectural application and proposed urban habitat solution for monarch butterflies, whose wild populations are being decimated by climate change. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

As with the past five editions of the Cooper Hewitt’s ongoing triennial program, the curators had to select projects from the past three years. “We were aware that we shouldn’t show too much speculative work and so we made sure to choose projects that reach across different issues and concepts,” McQuaid says. “Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s The Substitute—an animation that digitally resurrects the extinct male Northern white rhino using artificial intelligence and state-of-the-art visual effects—does a good job of this. There’s nothing applied about this project and yet it brings awareness to what we’re doing to other species.”

While it would be tempting to highlight only eye-catching works like The Substitute, applied industrial and design innovations that deal with more quotidian issues are bound to be more important in the long run. Consequently, Nature also showcases a number of early-stage big-industry projects. Michelin’s airless and generativity-designed Visionary Concept Tire is joined by the recycled plastic shoe initiative from Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, as well as Airbus, Autodesk, and AP Works’ material-saving Bionic Partition project.

While the first and third floors of the museum are dedicated entirely to the show that surveys contemporary creations, the second floor features a separate exhibit—titled Nature by Design—that highlights historic designs that depict nature or were inspired by it. This show demonstrates how nature has been a vital reference for artists, designers, and craftspeople throughout the ages. But Nature by Design hints at an inherent irony: While humanity has always idealized and romanticized the aesthetics of nature, it has only recently supported its preservation. Despite its growing mobilization, will the design world’s efforts be too little and too late?

You may also enjoy “From the Metropolis Archives: Designing the First “Googleplex” Office.”

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