How design is being upended by the climate crisis

“Nature”, the Cooper Hewitt Triennial, explores how designers are addressing the environment. Bamboo Theater by Xu Tiantian shows how plants can create space in an sustainable way.

The new wave of environmentally conscious design is existential
and experimental

The Falls-of-the-Ohio
, a leafy plant with clusters of tiny flowers, used to
grow on an island in the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky. No
one has seen one in the wild since 1881 and botanists presumed it
went extinct in the 1920s when a new dam inundated its habitat. But
this year, the blooms came back to life—in a way.

In “Resurrecting
the Sublime”
—an installation now on view in “Nature”,
the Cooper Hewitt’s Design Triennial—a team of artists and
scientists genetically engineered a perfume that mimics the scent
of the long-gone flower. They analyzed DNA of a dried specimen,
isolated the gene sequences that would have likely produced
aromatic enzymes, and synthesized the smell molecules.

A person stands in a suspended black metal box, which sprays the scent of an extinct flower produced through genetic engineering
Chris Gauthier, Cooper Hewitt In “Resurrecting the Sublime”, a
group of artists and scientists attempted to recreate the smell of
extinct flowers.

The perfume they created was intoxicatingly spicy and
sweet—like freshly sliced ginger and licorice. In the museum’s
gallery, you step inside a black metal box and wait for it to
spritz the faintest whisper of the aroma. I wanted to stand inside
all day. But there’s a catch: it’s impossible to replicate the
flower’s actual smell.

Even though scientists can reproduce the plant’s smell
molecules, there’s no way to know how much of each molecule the
plant produced. The sweet smell the artists created is a reminder
of all the wonderful things in nature that are gone, never to be
experienced again, even in our wildest imaginations and with the
most sophisticated technology. In her artist’s statement, Daisy
Ginsberg, one of the artists behind the piece, says:
“‘Resurrecting the Sublime’ asks us to contemplate our
actions, and potentially change them for the future.”

“It’s not just an exhibition; this triennial is a call to
action,” Cooper Hewitt director Caroline Baumann said at the
opening for “Nature”. “While nature’s allure is as strong
as ever for designers, it is now joined by a profound awareness
that it is time to change the paradigm.”

Environmentally conscious design has existed for years, but this
year it’s different. It’s no longer a fringe conversation.
It’s no longer an “oh that’s nice” detail. It’s not just
about designing the same things, but making them
“eco-friendly.” Designers are responding to the environmental
crisis with more nuance, sophistication, and directness than ever
before. They’re questioning their roles in an industry that
contributes a great deal to the problem. And they’re figuring out
where they have the most power to effect change. Climate anxiety is
defining our time and now, design. But is it enough to make an

A white, gauzy dress with a blue and brown tie-dye pattern
Matt Flynn, Cooper Hewitt Natsai Audrey Chieza dyed this garment
using microbes instead of resource-consumptive dyes.

The Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial is just one of a number of
international environment-focused design exhibitions of 2019. MoMA
curator Paola Antonelli organized “Broken Nature”, an
exhibition that “traces design’s potential to make reparations
for humans’ collapsing social orders and bonds with nature” for
the Milan Triennial; she also hosted a symposium in New York on the
topic, as well as
talks related to design and the environment

At this year’s Milan Design Fair,
the environmental crisis fueled material explorations
, like
chairs 3D printed from a cornstarch-based plastic, side tables made
from recycled shells and feathers, and glazes made from volcanic
ash. During this May’s
—the most notable of American design
festivals—ruminations about humans and the environment were
inescapable, from Wanted Design’s timely “Conscious
theme at its Industry City fair to Times Square, which was
temporarily occupied by a
prefab solar home
and a
tiny house made from recycled glass and sand

At its core, design is about the relationship between humans and
the world at large. And right now that relationship is pretty
toxic. But practitioners are reaching far and wide through the
sciences, technology, engineering, and arts to mend it and make it
more harmonious.

“Design at all scales—from architecture to urban planning to
products and digital design—can help us find a balance, or at
least restore some of the threads that have been severed from the
past decades and centuries,” Antonelli said during
the “Broken Nature” symposium in January

Charlotte McCurdy,
an interdisciplinary designer based in Brooklyn, thinks designers
have the ability to relay what a sustainable future looks like.
With a background in economics and international development, she
became a designer because it gave her the tools to explore and
communicate more ambitious definitions of sustainability.

“Design is a vocabulary through which we negotiate our values
and our goals both individually and collectively,” she says.
“In this time of escalating uncertainty and existentially
threatening challenges, designers have a responsibility to bring
that power to bear in charting a path to a livable future.”

A transparent raincoat with a yellow hue made from algae plastic
Courtesy Charlotte McCurdy Charlotte McCurdy’s “After Ancient
Sunlight” rain coat is an experiment in algae-based

The Cooper Hewitt Triennial exhibited McCurdy’s raincoat
from algae-based plastic
, which she describes as a
carbon-negative material since
algae sequesters carbon from the atmosphere
. “It’s
undeniable that design and designers are complicit in climate
change and the efforts to slow the engine of industry and
consumption have not been enough,” she says. “What if the
problem is not the volume of what we demand and produce but what it
is made from? What if our appetite for stuff could be turned into
an engine for reversing greenhouse gas emissions? Materials have
that potential.”

Materials are also the focus of designer Garrett Benisch, a student in
Pratt’s industrial design graduate program. He redesigned the humble ball-point pen
to be made entirely out of biosolids—sewage that’s been
digested by microorganisms—from the ink to the barrell.

“Because we are engaged with every step of a product’s
creation, it is our duty as designers to make decisions that ensure
the product is benefiting society and the planet every step of the
way,” Benisch tells Curbed.

Benisch and McCurdy are emblematic of a larger wave of
practitioners who are centering the environment in their work.
“The young generation of designers is more conscious,” Claire
Pijoulat and Odile Hainaut, the founders and curators of Wanted
Design, told Curbed by email. “They really think differently,
envisioning spaces and ways of living that will respect the
environment—producing less and better, consuming less and

A person’s hand scribbling on a white piece of paper using a ball point pen
Courtesy Garrett Benisch Designer Garrett Benisch redesigned the
humble ball point pen using biosolids, or sewage that’s been
treated with bacteria.

Pijoulat and Hainaut chose the theme of “Conscious” for
their exhibition this year to show how design, and design fairs,
can be a “platform for a larger conversation, beyond launching
new products,” they told Curbed. “If we can have a voice, even
a small one, we have to send the right message.”

At Wanted Design, Adrien Testard, a
fashion design student at the Écol des Arts Décoratifs, Paris,
exhibited his Hors-Champ
of sustainable garments—a reflection on
disappearing agrarian landscapes and cultures in France. Testard is
from a family of farmers in a rural village outside of Nantes.
Hors-Champ is based on the idea that landscapes reflect culture and
the sociologist Henri Mendras’s writings about how the life of
peasants has disappeared and transformed into the “job of
farming” over generations of industrialization.

Using organic cotton and wool from the South of France, Testard
wove his own fabrics to represent plowing fields, and created
jacquards whose patterns represent furrows in the land. He dyed his
fabrics with natural chestnut and catechu, an extract of acacia
trees. The garments include a smock, tunics, pants, jackets,
sweatshirts, and accessories with comfortable, drapey fits.

“For me, sustainability is all about comfort: a reassuring
cloth that brings back the energy of memories and history,”
Testard tells Curbed. “Sustainability isn’t a ‘choice’;
it’s a future in symbiosis with nature, and in harmony with
users’ desires. This is all about people, faith, values, and
intimacy with nature.”

A man stands in a field wearing a long coat that is black with white panels
ENSAD Paris, Louise Desnos Adrien Testard’s Hors-Champs
collection explores the disappearing life of peasants.
A detail of a man wearing a jacket tipping the brim of a ball cap made from rattan
ENSAD Paris, Louise Desnos The fabrics represent the landscape of
rural France and are hand-woven and dyed.

At Whatnot
, a department at the School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, work is informed by reflecting on design as objects of
cultural production, and refocusing the relationship between humans
and their objects. This year, the students investigated what leads
to objects becoming obsolete and redesigned items from the past to
make them relevant for the present.

Many of the items explored how natural phenomenon could lead to
more environmentally sensitive products, like an analog air
made from terra cotta and
uses evaporative cooling
rather than Freon and electricity to
chill the air, and a water purifier that
relies on evaporation and condensation.

A group of terra cotta vessels set in a metal tray
Courtesy Whatnot Studio Baohua Sheng, a student at the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago, designed an analog air conditioner
that used evaporative cooling for an exhibition that explores

Designers are using their work to try and reverse damage already
done to the environment, to find ways to make things in less
harmful ways, and to communicate calls to action and reasons to
care about the problem. The environmental crisis is also showing up
in more subtle, but still foundational ways. Jasper Udink ten
Cate—founder of Creative Chef
, a Dutch practice that creates experiences around food
and art—tries to subvert design’s obsession with stuff.

This year, Udink ten Crate and Cisco Schepens, a concept
developer at Creative Chef, presented The
Composition Table
, a set of interactive table settings. The two
created a musical composition, then wove the soundwaves from each
instrument in the piece onto placemats, napkins, plates, table
runners, and a tablecloth. Using a smartphone, users scan the
patterns to create their own songs. With this project, and all of
his work, Udink ten Crate tries not to make more design that ends
up in a waste stream, but use design to enrich experiences in
intangible ways.

A person is holding a smartphone over a table with red, blue, and green textiles woven with the patterns of sound waves
Creative Chef Studio Creative Chef Studio’s Composition Table is
an interactive experience in which people can scan sound patterns
that an algorithm then converts into a song.

“I really think that an object can be more than just stuff. If
it is well made with thoughtfulness and a feeling behind it, it can
become a story, a memory for people who use it, an object that
gives you meaningful insight or that asks you a question,” he
says. “So sustainability for me is an ingredient to create
awareness among users of objects.”

In May, the
United Nations released a report
about the unprecedented
decline of the planet’s biodiversity due to human activity:
1,000,000 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species
depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the
very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security,
health and quality of life worldwide,” the report said.
Meanwhile, the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a warning

that current efforts to slow global warming are not enough to
mitigate serious impacts, and essentially issued a plea for global
economies to change.

In the United States,
manufacturing accounts for nearly 30 percent of all energy use
global construction industry yields 23 percent of global CO2
. Considering the gravity of the situation, it’s
tough to see how a carbon-negative raincoat or a pen made from
biosolids can make any difference when chemical factories, cars,
and coal power plants continue spewing CO2 into the air. Large,
complex systems must change to address the environmental crisis.
Beyond showing us what sustainable future that may or may not
happen, these environmentally-oriented designs are giving us more
reasons to elect politicians who actually have the power and will
to enact broad-sweeping change.

“We’re all working on this, artists, curators, writers,
we’re all trying our best,”
Antonelli told Dezeen
. “The only ones that are completely
deaf are the powers that be that are supposed to legislate and help
us put things in motion.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
How design is being upended by the climate crisis