Design for a Living World Exhibit

Design for a Living World

A landmark exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt casts designers as champions of conservation.

The concept of “truth to materials” is nothing new in the design world. Even before the modern architecture movement made it a central canon, designers have always had a love affair with materials, inspired by their textures and behaviors and often testing their limits.

But a landmark exhibition presented by The Nature Conservancy pushes the notion of materiality into a new 21st century context, with designers at the center of the dialogue. Design for a Living World challenged 10 of the world’s top graphic, fashion, industrial, and furniture designers to develop new uses for sustainably grown and harvested materials from all over the globe. Staged at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum May 2009 through January 2010 before beginning a world tour, the exhibition tells the stories of their explorations and documents the results.

“We saw design as a compelling way to reach people, because we could connect the materials back to the things people use every day,” says Sara Elliott, The Nature Conservancy’s project director for the exhibition.

The Conservancy hoped to connect with a sophisticated, urban, and design-savvy audience that might be compelled to become Conservancy ambassadors. That’s why, in 2007, the Conservancy approached Abbott Miller (a Pentagram partner) and Ellen Lupton (the Cooper-Hewitt’s curator of contemporary design and also Miller’s wife) to co-curate an exhibition focused on landscape, conservation, and sustainability.

“Some important stories to tell”
Miller played a triple role in the project, serving as co-curator, one of the 10 product designers, and the exhibition designer. That sounds daunting, but for Miller it felt completely natural. “The beauty is that you’re always in the position of thinking about design in concert with the content.”

Miller and Lupton helped the Conservancy flesh out a concept based on its 2001 traveling exhibition In Response to Place. The Conservancy and curator Andy Grundberg, a photography critic and writer, commissioned 12 photographers to travel to and document some of the world’s most threatened landscapes. The Conservancy liked the idea of building on the successful formula, and agreed to Miller and Lupton’s proposal to pair 10 world-renowned designers with 10 Conservancy sites that offered important conservation stories to tell.

“Because this was a series of commissions, we were almost steering the narrative by the choice of materials and designers,” says Miller.

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, for example, seemed a natural choice to discover the beauty and strength of salmon skin (a plentiful waste by-product of Alaska’s salmon industry) as a clothing material. Known
for her unorthodox use of materials, Dutch designer Hella Jongerius was assigned to explore the strange beauty of chicle, found in the Yucatán Peninsula and commonly used for chewing gum.

To document the designers’ journeys, photographer Amy Vitale traveled to each location, from Mexico to China. Her images illustrate the progress from material sources to the finished products displayed
in the exhibition, helping Miller tell a multilayered story. “For every project, we talk about place, materials, and designers,” he explains. “Overlaying that is the conversation about sustainability, grounded in the reality of how designers think and work and how they’re inspired by materials. And overlaying that, of course, is the message about The Nature Conservancy’s agenda. Visitors can take in just one of those levels, or all of them.”

Framing the exhibition
As Miller had hoped, his own design journey both informed and inspired the visual framework for the exhibition. He and Pentagram designer Brian Raby traveled to the industrial city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to learn how the components of plywood, a major export for the country, are sustainably harvested and made into products. They visited a trade school whose students were using a very sophisticated CNC router to create furniture from Bolivian hardwoods.

“They were making more traditional-looking furniture, but we were inspired to explore how you could use a router to leverage the planar aspects of plywood, allowing it to look like and celebrate that it was made out of a sheet good,” Miller explains.

Ultimately, he and Raby designed a mid-century modernist inspired, slatted chair made from Bolivian jatoba veneers. Their prototype yields three chairs per sheet of FSC-certified plywood with minimal waste. The pieces could be shipped flat and dry-assembled with a rubber mallet, without glues.

Miller extended this design thinking to the exhibition itself, with an eye toward minimizing material waste and exploiting the natural beauty of sustainably harvested materials. He also wanted to create modular exhibit elements that could be disassembled and moved easily to new exhibit locations. And finally, he wanted to leverage Vitale’s sumptuous photographs.

His solution is a system of 9-ft.-tall, lattice-like frames that lined the Cooper-Hewitt’s gallery walls (without requiring attachment to the landmark museum’s floors or walls) and held a series of aluminum shingles imaged with Vitale’s full-color photographs. Custom-fabricated vitrines of sustainably harvested Spanish cedar, steel, and glass recall drafting tables, helping create a sense that the artifachave just been gathered in the field and laid out on camp tables.

“I wanted the casework to be extremely light on its toes, minimal in material consumption, and the opposite of the bulky casework you often see in museums,” Miller explains. The image frames, also made of Spanish cedar, can be reconfigured to fit any dimensions. Text panels in each of the exhibition modules are paired with 32-in. Sony high-resolution LCD displays showing videos documenting the designers’ journeys.

Fast-track and sustainable
The project’s short timeframe and unique materials requirements inspired Pentagram’s decision to partner with Design and Production Inc. (Lorton, Va.) in a design/build process that involved iterative concepting and prototyping, says Dan Moalli, D&P vice president. D&P collaborated with Pentagram, The Nature Conservancy, and graphics provider Mega Media Concepts to meet the project’s rigorous sustainability goals, which called for sustainably harvested wood products, recycled and recyclable materials, avoidance of chemical-based processes or materials that off-gas destructive chemicals, use of mechanical fasteners instead of adhesives, use of energy-efficient lighting, and direct-to-substrate printing to minimize unnecessary layering of materials. Moalli noted that D&P’s work consistently adheres to museum conservation requirements that overlap, and often exceed, current sustainability goals.

Sourcing the exotic Brazilian woods that Pentagram specified for the casework proved a challenge. Miller wanted to use a specific FSC-certified Bolivian plywood made from palo maria, yesquero blanco, and serebo woods, recalls Moalli.

“We went on a worldwide search looking for it, but we just couldn’t get the relatively small quantities that we needed.” But D&P, which typically fabricates and installs much larger-scale museum projects, tapped into its list of FSC-certified suppliers and recommended Spanish cedar, another certified, sustainably harvested wood. It was ultimately used for the wooden bases of the vitrines and coated with a low-VOC flame retardant finish to meet museum fire safety standards.

D&P engineered and crafted the lattice-like frames for the exhibit image panels using no glues. The frame assemblies are outfitted with threaded inserts that accept socket cap flange screws. The metal components of the display tables are made of steel, which contains a high percentage of recycled content and has a high reclamation rate, meaning that it can be recycled repeatedly. The display case bases are made of Medite II, a medium-density fiberboard manufactured from 100% recycled or recovered wood fibers that are bonded with formaldehyde-free resin.

The image panels that provide a vivid backdrop to the exhibition are 1/32-in. aluminum shingles made with 97% recycled content, says Anthony Senatore, principal of Mega Media Concepts (Sparta, N.J.). To meet the project’s sustainability goals, Mega Media looked beyond the traditional approach of mounting prints to a pvc-based material. The images were produced using an encapsulated dye-sublimation process and water-based inks. The aluminum is pre-coated with a scratch-resistant coating and the images are printed on paper, then transferred using a heat press, Senatore explains.

Camp-inspired vitrines are made from FSC-certified Spanish cedar with steel accents, topped by acrylic cases. The display case bases are made of Medite II, a medium-density fiberboard manufactured from 100% recycled
or recovered wood fibers bonded with formaldehyde-free resin. Modular LED light strips provide ample lighting while meeting low-energy requirements.

“The image is encapsulated under the coating and is sublimated into the aluminum. That protects the image and the aluminum provides the high-definition photographic look. The quality is better (than traditional prints), it’s more durable, and it maintains an extreme high level of sustainability. Plus it was within budget.”

Lighting elements were also chosen with sustainability in mind. To provide ample lighting of artifacts and meet low-energy requirements as well as Miller’s desire for a low-profile look, D&P suggested Ardee Lighting’s CLX Series Clikstrips, modular strips that contain low-voltage LEDs. “You can snap in as many LED modules as you need and it stays relatively cool to the touch,” says Moalli.

Because the exhibition will travel, D&P engineered the elements to share parts and disassemble easily. “The idea is to make it easy to take apart and put back together, but not look that way,” laughs Moalli.
“That means using joinery techniques to hide fasteners and joints and creating as few seams as possible.”

Design ambassadors
The Nature Conservancy reports that more than 150,000 people visited the Cooper-Hewitt during the exhibition’s stay there, and it attracted lots of attention from the press. Both the museum and the Conservancy consider the exhibition a big success.

In an age where consumers are so far removed from the origins of the things they use and consume every day, the exhibit managed to convey how closely materiality, beauty, and conservation are linked, says Elliott. And while the Conservancy initially sought to connect with design consumers, they discovered the value of designers themselves as both a target audience and a conduit for communicating the critical links between design, materiality, and conservation.

“At first we probably didn’t realize just how important designers are to communicating our message,” she admits. “But as the 10 commissioned designers engaged in the project and dug deeper and deeper into the materials and their uses, we realized that the design community can be an amazing and powerful ambassador—not just for The Nature Conservancy, but for environmental stewardship in general.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 28, 2010


Location:  Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York

Client:  The Nature Conservancy

Curators:  Abbott Miller, Ellen Lupton

Exhibition Design:  Pentagram

Exhibition Design Team:  Abbott Miller (principal in charge, designer), Jeremy Hoffman, Kristen Spilman, Brian Raby (designers)

Fabrication:  Design and Production Inc.

Graphic Production: Mega Media Concepts

Consultants:  Jeff Nash Lighting Design (lighting)

Photos:  Ami Vitale (exhibition content photos), Paul Warchol (project photos)



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