Visual Culture
The Cooper Hewitt’s Survey of Contemporary Design Trends toward Climate-Change Adaptation, Algorithms, and Global Collaboration
By Ariela Gittlen
Feb 15, 2016 3:26 pm

The latest in innovative design is on view at the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, the museum’s fifth installment of the exhibition, featuring more than 250 works that run the gamut from fashion to typography, domestic objects to genetically engineered creatures. One first-floor gallery gives off a complex, earthy odor—notes of grass, wet leaves, and a hint of horse manure. At a preview of the show, scent artist Sissel Tolaas took a deep breath and exhaled with a sigh, “Ah, the beauty of decay!”

Tolaas was commissioned by the museum to create Smell (2016), a scent based on Central Park, and the smells of a fall evening in Sheep Meadow fill the Cooper Hewitt’s arched hallway. Tolaas collected aromas from multiple locations in the park in the morning, afternoon, and evening. This olfactory information was then stored using nanotechnology, allowing it to be applied to the museum walls in tiny capsules activated by human touch. “Imagine breaking eggshells,” she says. The project’s effect is complex, strange, and transporting.

This expanded notion of beauty—one that extends beyond stylish ornament or pleasing geometry, to the unseen, the grotesque, and the mathematical—is at the heart of the triennial, organized by senior curator Ellen Lupton and assistant curator Andrea Lipps. The work of 63 designers is arranged according to seven broad themes that include “Intricate,” “Transgressive,” and “Emergent,” but beyond these categories the exhibition shows us a design landscape trending increasingly towards responsiveness, collaboration, and digital intervention.

An engagement with responsiveness extends from scent to environment via architect Jenny Sabin’s textile installation PolyThread Pavilion (2015-16), which fills an entire gallery. Knitted from solar-active threads, the structure responds to light, slowly transitioning from a glowing blue to white and back again. The tubular knits and cell-shaped apertures of the pavilion create the sensation of stepping inside an enormous lung.

Installation view of the PolyThread knitted textile pavilion, designed be Jenny E. Sabin, commissioned for "Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial." Photo by Matt Flynn © 2016

Installation view of the PolyThread knitted textile pavilion, designed be Jenny E. Sabin, commissioned for "Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial." Photo by Matt Flynn © 2016

Also responsive to changes in the environment, a leather jacket from TheUnseen’s AIR Collection is coated in wind-reactive ink that transforms from black to an opalescent gradient of green, brown, and blue upon contact with turbulent air. (This chemical process will be taught in an upcoming workshop at the Cooper Hewitt, at which TheUnseen designer Lauren Bowker will teach participants to create a color-changing feather.) Traditionally, design shapes behavior, intentionally or not. The shape of a chair affects our posture and a wayfinding system influences our route. These projects, however, suggest a future in which design is increasingly adaptable to changes in the environment, and perhaps also the needs of individuals.

The product of an entirely different kind of alchemy, the Haas Brothers’ project Afreaks (2015) is a triumph of collaboration across political and cultural borders. A cadre of fantastic creatures with bulging eyes and drooping proboscises that wouldn’t seem out of place in the world of Dr. Seuss, these beaded sculptures are created by the artisans of Monkeybiz, an income-generating project based outside of Cape Town. The Haas Sisters, as the beaders have playfully dubbed themselves, are full collaborators in the project, and a colorfully dressed contingent was on-hand for the opening of the triennial.

In a recent interview, Simon and Niki Haas expressed frustration at what they see as art-world bias—that articles and press releases often re-cast the women of Monkeybiz as “fabricators” rather than full partners in the creative process. The beauty and beguiling strangeness of Afreaks, however, springs from the synthesis of the artisans’ intricate beadwork and Simon Haas’s complex beading algorithm, sketches of which are displayed alongside the sculptures.

In fact, algorithms seem to have infiltrated every category of the exhibition. Olivier van Herpt’s 3D-printed vessels resemble the striated trunks of equatorial trees but are created via algorithms in the computer-aided-drafting (CAD) program Rhino. Design studio Humans Since 1982’s A Million Times, 288 H (2013) is a stunning fusion of design, electrical engineering, and code. Two hundred and eighty-eight analog clocks spin in a series of mesmerizing patterns (you can sit and stare, losing track of time) until their hands momentarily align to show the current hour and minutes, as if on a digital watch.

This was the product of a great deal of collaboration with programmers, designers Per Emanuelsson and Bastian Bischoff explain, and while this version with its 288 clock faces is a prototype, they’ve created other versions of the piece for the collectors market. In perhaps the perfect blend of responsiveness, collaboration, and digital intervention, if you can’t yet afford A Million Times, you can download the app from the Apple store.


Ariela Gittlen