A visit to the Cooper-Hewitt

Finally, we visited the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design today (after two failed attempts). And admission was free! Apparently they have invented some sort of “National Design Week” to promote itself. And design. Well, it was pretty much as I expected. Very… institutional. But still worth a visit.

The first floor was an exhibition titled “Design USA,” which was a show consisting of the winners of the National Design Awards from the past 10 years. The winners showcased were pretty predictable—many famous names like Diller Scofido + Renfro, Stefen Sagmeister, John Maeda, Adobe, Herman Miller, IDEO… I think Pentagram was mentioned a few times. I kept getting exasperated at how insular and limited and.. like, self-congratulatory the design world feels sometimes. These are names I hear over and over until it’s drilled into your head. You’d think no one else has any good ideas or knows how to innovate.

…But then I had to keep reminding myself that the Cooper Hewitt is for the general public, not for people like me who are already interested in and engaged with the design world. So it would be good for them to know about John Maeda, because he IS awesome.

But that raises the question—if their goal truly is to eduate the public and teach them about how wonderful and important design is in our everyday lives, then why did this show feel so flightly and non-informative? Visitors were offered no more than a cursory glance at each of the wide array of works without really exploring any one of them deeply enough to fully appreciate their importance. Part of it might have been that the space was cramped because they were undergoing massive renovations. The works were also organized around themes (Craft, Experience, Tech…) but the plaques were not well-placed. I did not even notice there were themes until midway through the exhibition. And most of the visitors were just filing past the displays with slightly puzzled looks on their faces. Only a few stopped for long thoughtful looks. It was frustrating, and made me a little sad.

The film Helvetica did wonders for making people appreciate the magic of design by focusing long and hard on one aspect of it: a certain Swiss typeface. But this exhibit lumped all flavors of design together and shoved it all in the viewer’s face under the general heading: look, isn’t all of it rather cool?

Anyway, it wasn’t all bad. The upstairs exhibit, “Design for a Living World” was pretty engaging. Ten designers were each given a sustainable and/or natural material to work with and they had to come up with something to make with it that, hopefully, utilizes the strengths of the material and helps the local people, ecosphere, and economy. The exhibit was set up in such a way that each room was devoted to one or two projects. Each project was explained through video, sketches, beautiful wall panels with photography from the locale, maps, background info, and of course a display of the finished product.

My favorite of the projects was probably the cocoa grater and packaging designed by Yves Béhar. He worked with an indigenous Costa Rican women’s cooperative that made these easily transportable, easily storable patties out of cocoa powder. By observing their lives and how they used chocolate (for medicinal, ceremonial, and daily purposes), he invented a circular tube grater that basically grates and collects the powder from a cocoa patty. When you are done grating, you just stir the tube directly into a cup of hot water to make a cocoa drink. There is a little stick protruding from the wooden handle of the tool that allows you to hook it to the side of a cup. I found this little implement very ingenious and it also opened up the possibility of selling it with the patties as an export gift item, to bolster incomes. People overseas who buy it will get these awesome handmade patties, completely different from their everyday heavily processed chocolate products, and get to enjoy a product that links to a different way of life.

Another project I particularly enjoyed was the gigantic knitted wool rugs by Christien Meindertsma. She used organic wool from Lava Lake Ranch in Idaho to make huuuuge yarn (over an inch thick per strand) and knitted super chunky hexagon rug modules out of them. Each rug module was knitted from exactly one sheep’s worth of wool, and if you linked a lot of them together, you get what she called a “flock.” I thought that was an interesting way to get people to remember the source of a material, by reminding them of the behaviors of the living animal that it came from. Not the world’s most useful or even usable product (the rug was pretty lumpy), but still, very charming somehow…

My least favorite ones were the furniture design ones. I don’t know. I think I am predisposed to find furniture design a little frivolous because so much of it just feels like embroidering a theme. How many more fancy chair designs does the world need? Especially flatpack plywood interlocking chair designs? (Yeah, there was one.) I get that chairs are iconic and therefore any industrial/furniture designer is just itching to design their own signature seating, but for a show like this, it felt like a cop-out solution. The maplewood bench by Maya Lin and the bamboo “forest” concept of furniture by Ezri Tarazi were beautiful aesthetically, but didn’t contribute so much towards bridging gaps or solving problems as the simple little cocoa grater did.

It was a theme of the show to have a positive effect on the world through design, but I felt that only about a third of the projects were really there in spirit. So much of design still focuses on the aesthetics and the formal qualities of an object, not enough about solving a human problem or fulfilling a pressing need. That’s not something that will ever really change. I mean, certain aspects of design like interior, fashion, and jewelry design will pretty much always be about aesthetics. But it can be so much more, and it should have been in this show.

Maybe that is why I want to be an interaction designer after all these years of wanting to be an architect or a graphic designer. I love aesthetics and its communicative properties, and I still believe clear and effective, even inspiring, communication is a priceless and important quality to strive for. But more than anything else, interaction design seems focused on solving human problems, mostly with the help of technology (super flexible, always changing), and always with a sensitivity to effectiveness, friendliness, and usability. Everything from preventing accidents to helping people make connections to making daily life easier to handle, whether for young or old, wealthy or poor. And it’s still a budding field, which I am excited about.

Tomorrow is Open House at SVA and I have to get to bed, but all I can say after today is I hope x1000 that I get into this program. I want to be in NY. I want to spend all my time walking around and observing and learning from this richly diverse, crammed-together place of sharply contrasting parts. And I want to be an interaction designer, not just because “it’s terribly trendy to care” (David Stairs), but because I think designing ways to make people’s lives less stressful, more enjoyable, and maybe more full of delight is a wonderful thing to do for the rest of my life.

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