Design for a living world

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

My lunch at TED was sponsored by the Smithsonian, who are putting on an exhibition at the Copper Hewitt Museum titled “Design for a Living World”. One of the exhibit’s curators – affiliated with the Nature Conservancy – argues that we rarely think about the objects we encounter and where they come from. (This is an argument I’ve made many times, in my posts on Fiji water.., which, oddly enough, for a conference obsessed with environmental responsibility, is the beverage of choice at the Google-sponsred snack bars…)

For design to be sustainable, he argues, we need to think about the location of objects, where things originate from, as well as about the objects themselves. The words in the Copper Hewitt show invite top designers to travel to places where raw materials are grown and harvested and build works that connect that sense of origin to the design object. So Christien Meindertsma travelled to Idaho to a sustainable sheep ranch and built a wool piece called “flock” where each section of the piece was produced by a single animal. The piece is an opportunity to explore the astounding natural properties of wool – its water and odor resistance, its resiliency and insulative value.

Similarly, salmon skin – usually thought of as a byproduct of fish production – is a resilient material, twice as tough as cow leather. It can survive the bite of a grizzly bear and keep a fish alive. So Isaac Mizrahi explored salmon skin as a material for an evening dress. Furniture designed Abbott Miller travelled to a huge sustainable forest in Bolivia and designed a beautiful chair that can be punched out of a sheet of plywood and assembled with a mallet.

Designer Yves Behar travelled to Costa Rica as part of the project, exploring cocoa beans. “I’m Swiss,” he explained, “and most of the good materials were taken.” He wondered whether the Costa Rican chocolate – some of the very best in the world – could be made into fine chocolate in Costa Rica instead of shipped to Switzerland. His trip over land across the country helped him understand why this wasn’t realistic. But it also gave him a huge appreciation of the matriarchal culture that harvests the cocoa and ensures that the product is sustainable. “You couldn’t refine the chocolate in this environment, but I began to appreciate the way it was made locally,” formed into patties. He designed a cup with a grater to allow people at the gallery opening to scrape the patties into hot water and drink chocolate much as they do in Costa Rica where the beans are harvested.

The point of the show: what do I own and what stories do those items tell? Sustainability becomes more real when it’s placed within geographic and timebound counstraints, the curators argue – they’ll have a chance to show this to the world at Cooper Hewitt this spring, and later throughout the US.

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