Visual Culture

These Designs Hope to Extend Humanity’s Time on Earth

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Feb 27, 2019 7:31PM

buro BELéN (Brecht Duijf, Lenneke Langenhuijsen), SUN+, Unseen Glasses, 2012. Photo by buro BELéN. Courtesy of the designers.

Despite our universal mortality, death is a hard thing to face. We often choose instead to think positively on someone’s legacy: the impact the person has had, and what he or she leaves behind.

“In a way, we could do that as a species, too,” said Paola Antonelli, curator of the headlining exhibit at this year’s XXII Triennale di Milano, “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival,” which opens in Milan on March 1st. But if thinking about our own demise or the death of a loved one is hard, then considering the end of our entire species is even grimmer.

“Broken Nature” is so titled because humanity has caused enough collateral damage and waste that Earth may not be hospitable for much longer. We are facing the sixth mass extinction—the last one, over 65 million years ago, annihilated the dinosaurs. Much like those who are dying sometimes try to make amends before they pass on, Antonelli believes we owe our world just as much: “We have something to repair; we have to make reparations,” she said.

In her role as a curator, she can do so by promoting the efforts of restorative design. She hopes that “Broken Nature” will encourage viewers to think about what we want the end of humanity to look like. As our population swells, the damage we cause is becoming the hallmark of our legacy. Antonelli hopes that “instead of being so lackadaisical…we can take control and plan it well.” And hopefully, make amends.

For six months, “Broken Nature” will showcase commissioned works from more than 20 countries. Below, we present four compelling projects that show how design can alter the course of human survival. “This is not an exhibition of speculative design.” Antonelli noted. “This is about now.”

Buro Belén’s sun-proof garments


Brecht Duijf and Lenneke Langenhuijsen of Dutch design duo Buro Belén want to rethink our relationship with the sun. In a world that follows Buro Belén’s model for sun protection, people would be swathed in opaque and transparent wearables instead of using sunblock, and conscious sunbathing would be a daily ritual. Because as dangerous as overexposure to the sun can be, we can’t survive without it.

“After decades of focusing mainly on the negative sides of the sun,” Duijf said, “we need to re-balance our relationship with it.”

Duijf and Langenhuijsen’s Sun+ research project is equal parts textile development, fashion design, and waste reduction. In particular, they explore how textiles can become our main form of sun protection through a line of UV-blocking garments that respond to the urgent prospect of the gradual depletion of the Earth’s own sunblock, the ozone layer.

For “Broken Nature,” Buro Belén will present their collection of protective wearables, which includes hats, caftans, and eyewear, that are designed to cut out topical sunscreen and promote the use of UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) textiles instead.

“Recent research on the oceans’ coasts show that the UV filter harms sea life underneath the surface,” Duijf said. “Our sun creams cause this.” And the discarded plastic bottles and spray cans only add to the world’s waste.

Studio Formafantasma’s e-waste office furniture

In 2017, the Amsterdam-based design duo Studio Formafantasma first debuted Ore Streams, an investigation into how design can reduce waste, at Melbourne’s NGV Triennial. In the spirit of recycling, the curators of “Broken Nature” commissioned Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi of Formafantasma to continue their research and bring it to Milan this year.

The studio’s exhibit will include 3D renderings of recycling strategies, their ongoing research into planned obsolescence, and their designs for upcycled furniture pieces.

“The design of the furniture implicitly suggests the elimination of the idea of waste,” Farresin wrote via email. “Materials should never be considered as such, but simply as undergoing constant transformation.”

In their furniture designs, Farresin and Trimarchi repurpose bulky office gadgets and transform the gold of discarded circuit boards into gilded detailing. E-waste is the fastest-growing stream of waste globally, but the average user does not have the knowledge or necessary tools to properly dispose of electronics; as a result, hoards of e-waste are illegally dumped in developing countries, where specs of silver and gold go unrecycled in circuit boards that crowd their landfills.

If the difference between what we consider to be prime material or waste lies in the potential utility we see in it, then the key to reducing waste is in finding new uses for it. Farresin hopes to use design “as a tool to heal what is broken more than to add new things in the world.”

Capsula Mundi’s burial eggs

Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, Capsula Mundi. 2003. Photo by Francesco D’Angelo. Courtesy of the designers.

When a loved one dies, one coffin and a single slab of granite is easily justified. But a sea of coffins and tombstones overwhelming an otherwise verdant landscape starts to lose its meaning. Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli’s Capsula Mundi offers a more sustainable vision, replacing tombstones with trees and egg-shaped containers that serve as urns.

Capsula Mundi’s biodegradable design was first unveiled in 2003, garnering minor internet fame with its promise of replacing graveyards with forests.“[It’s] kind of a no-brainer,” Antonelli said. “It’s funny to say, but once you start thinking in this more holistic way, it makes sense, and it’s quite poetic and beautiful.”

This early online popularity at first troubled the design duo. Their online fans seemed to be too young to be worrying about their burial. While, at first, they attributed its popularity among the youth to the environmental focus of the project, they soon realized the project’s main pull was its defiance of the last taboo: death. “The theme of death,” Bretzel wrote via email, “with its related objects and social connection, suddenly came up as a theme untouched by a design reflection.”

The amount of wood required to make coffins is destructive to forests, and the toxic chemicals from the embalming process leach into the dirt. “The thought of laying an egg underground and planting a tree above it is reconciling,” Bretzel said. “It reconstitutes the passage that a marble tomb interrupts.”

Citelli and Bretzel set out to design objects that would make our burial and mourning process not only more sustainable, but less painful, as well. Instead of burying our loved ones in thick wooden coffins inside oppressive cement burial plots, Capsula Mundi incorporates more hopeful imagery, such as “the egg as a symbol of birth,” Bretzel explained, and “the tree as a symbol of union between the sky and earth.”

Folder’s Border Visualization

Folder is a Milanese visual research agency whose ongoing project, “Italian Limes”—limes being Latin for “borders”—tracks and documents how climate change is shaping the alpine borders that separate Italy, France, Austria, and Switzerland. The project began in 2014 as an inquiry into how borders are represented.

The project reached new heights in 2016, when the team installed a grid of 25 solar-powered sensors, over 3,000 meters above sea level, to track what the Italian parliament calls the “moving border.” The glaciers that once lay between Italy and Austria are rapidly melting due to global warming, and as consequence, so has the clear demarcation of national borders.

This year, Folder will exhibit stunning depictions of Italy’s Alpine landscapes, laid out in an interactive installation that shows climate change’s role in shaping country lines. In an interview with Vice in 2016, the head of the mapping expedition, Marco Ferrari, said: “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019