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Dull Green

Early in January 2011, Kimberly Voigt and I saw the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s Fourth Design Triennial, called “Why Design Now?” I have seen the Triennials in 2000 and 2006 as well, and the 2010 version represented a notable shift in emphasis. This iteration focuses on designs that “address social and ecological problems.” The agenda was heavily skewed towards green, sustainable, and low environmental impact designs. Like several other recent design exhibitions, there were both realized designs and blue-sky proposals. The viewer had to pore over the text panels to figure out which was which.

Mixing imaginative proposals with designs that are in production irks me. Blue-sky proposals have not undergone a process of development, nor have they been tested in the marketplace. They remind me of nothing so much as the idiotic schemes that Mechanix Illustrated used to publish in the 1930s. I have an issue that features, among other things, a “combination city building and airport of the future,” complete with rotating runway on top. That one didn’t exactly work out, did it? Untested proposals have exactly the same problem: they may be total flops. To me, placing blue-sky designs next to those that have been fully realized insults all the hard work of development that goes into the work that has been brought all the way to the production phase.

That said, some of the designs were ingenious. There was a building material made of mushroom roots, an incubator made (partly) of scrap car pars, and a digitally-controlled machine that squirts out concrete walls. All very cool, if perhaps impractical.

The exhibit was, in many ways, a green-fest. Lots of biodegradable materials and low-carbon footprint buildings. Lots of DIY machines for third-world applications like threshing millet or carrying jugs of water. Lots of socially responsible and interactive systems, including And, rather inexplicably, the iPhone. Really, I don’t think clever gadgets that consumers want to upgrade every two years are remotely green. But there it was.

Craft made an appearance, usually representing “slow” design and third-world employment. Interesting how craft has come to represent virtuous design – which craftstpeople have known for decades, but could never convincingly articulate. Finally, the design avant-garde is waking up, you know? There were marvelous lighting fixtures and seating by David Trubridge, hand-stitched garments by Alabama Chanin, and Heath Ceramics. Nice that craft is no longer invisible in such lofty precincts as the Cooper-Hewitt. One has to wonder, though: what will happen when green is no longer trendy?

After we went through the show, Kim and I considered what we had just seen. She noted that the exhibit was uninspiring. Actually, kind of dull.

So much of the design language in “Why Design Now” was warmed-over mid-century modernism. Functional objects stripped of all decoration. Buildings with metal frames and floor-to-ceiling windows. Socially responsible materials. (Intended to respond not to industrial plenitude, but a sense of impending scarcity.) But all this earnestness was clothed in boring forms. Why Dull Now?

The exhibit was a huge contrast to a book I bought in the gift shop, titled “Stuffz: Design on Material,” Basically a compendium of current surface design, the book was energetic and exciting. There was a strong flavor of “Juxtapoz” magazine, with notes of vinyl toys, Japanese Post-Pop, and street art. There was a little hi-style design too, like interiors by Jurgen Bey and Marcel Wanders. “Stuffz” was fascinating and fun. In comparison, “Why Design Now” was soooooo sincere but not very compelling.

I’m puzzled by the apparent linkage between green design and modernism. In a way, it’s like mediocre conceptual art: all backstory, no visual entertainment. Is it a Calvinist streak? Do green designers feel they must prove their sincerity by eschewing visual and emotional complexity? It sure looks like it.

Or, it could be that mid-century modern has lost its original associations with industrial mass-production, and has semiotically mutated into the visual language of sincerity, efficiency and social good. That’s possible. I mean, we certainly wouldn’t look to Art Deco or Memphis or blobitecture to advertise our intention to improve the world. And since green designers presumably want to look like they’re keeping costs down, the unornamented style of modernism might seem appropriate.

And then there’s the ghost of Marxist critique. Visual entertainment – ornament, pattern, color, complexity, semiotic play – is still understood in some circles as serving capitalism by stimulating consumption. In this view, the more a design relies on the non-functional aspects of style, the more it serves planned obsolescence, in which consumers are enticed to buy new stuff and throw away the old. Myself, I see no reason to think that green design must take any particular visual style. If anything, the dullness of “Why Design Now?” proves that we haven’t invented a visual language that truly represents the present, and is not just a passing fashion. We have yet to supplant modernism.

At a deeper level, I happen to think that all this heavy breathing about green design is misleading. The defining assumption is that we can cut back on greenhouse gas emission and the waste of natural resources with better design. That may be true, but only partly so. We probably won’t halt global warming by buying wooden radios, or planting grass on the roofs of buildings.

The truth of the matter is that effective green change must take place in the realm of industrial production and mass-consumption. Change must occur in increments that can be repeated millions of times by millions of people. And that means our basic habits of consumption must change. Ultimately, we must buy less, but more expensive, stuff. Craft is only a miniscule part of the answer.

My nominee for most effective green design is the marketing of the CFL, the compact florescent lamp. Notice that I did not credit the bulb itself. CFLs languished on store shelves for a number of years, caught in a situation where production costs remained high because sales remained low. It took Steve Hamburg, an environmental studies professor at Brown University, and Fred Krupp, president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, to break the cycle. Sensing the Wal-Mart could use some positive public relations – this was when the company was being accused of exploiting their employees mercilessly – Hamburg and Krupp set about convincing executives that they could effect a considerable social good by pushing CFL bulbs. Wal-Mart agreed. They started selling CFL bulbs at very close to cost, accompanied by an advertising campaign. They pressured their suppliers. Lo and behold! Sales rose exponentially, costs went down, other manufacturers jumped into the fray. Americans have now replaced enough incandescent bulbs to reduce energy consumption by supertankers full of oil. Not bad for the work of two visionary guys.

The CFL bulb, by itself, did not effect this change. Two far-sighted activists did. Corporate America (in a rare moment of enlightenment) did. Millions of consumers did.

“Why Design Now?” was ultimately confused. The exhibit did not offer a sustained examination of patterns of consumption. Most of the designs on display, cool as they might be, evade the essential problem. The design of objects is only the starting-point for effective environmental change. The real action is in the marketplace.

But then, marketing plans and social activism are processes that aren’t inherently visual. To have an exhibit at all, the Cooper-Hewitt needs objects, or at the very least, documents. Next time, how about an all-document show for the Triennial? Nothing but text panels and charts and videos. I don’t know what you think, but it sounds dull to me.

Maybe a dirty little secret of design is that it’s primarily visual. Being visual, interesting design depends on invention and difference. As with art, it’s not satisfying to repeat the past. We want to see something original; we don’t want to see another Superleggera Chair passed off as new. And here, my emphasis is on “see.” Not just to know, but to see.

March 6, 2011

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