Karrie Jacobs


May 13, 2010

The Brown Decades

Z-20 Concentrated Solar Power System by Tarazi Studio, at the Cooper Hewitt Triennial.

“The commonest axiom of history is that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”  So wrote Lewis Mumford in the opening paragraph of The Brown Decades, his book about arts in American in the decades following the Civil War.     I’m not sure that the generational back-skip entirely explains what’s going on at the National Design Triennial, at the Cooper Hewitt Museum starting tomorrow, but the title came to mind  the moment I walked into the first gallery.  The exhibition is designed by Tsang Seymour using “eco-safe materials, modular components…and simple mounting techniques.”  I wrote in my notebook: “Everything is brown.”  I felt as if I’d teleported to a Creative Playthings shop circa 1970.

Here’s my quandry: I’ve been advocating, for more years than I care to count, an approach to design that is about genuine problem solving rather than the proliferation of more shiny stuff.  Way back in 1992, at the Cooper Hewitt’s own Edge of the Millennium conference, Tibor Kalman and I gave a talk called “The End” in which we called for the end of design because “Design has become the profession os solving very small problems.  Larger problems are left unsolved because everybody is too busy designing.”

Well, here it is 2010 and the Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial, entitled Why Design Now?, is pretty much the “the end of design” that  Tibor and I once demanded.   Almost everything on display is intended to solve environmental, health and social problems. Big problems.  Huge problems.  Almost nothing is very pretty.   In every single gallery, in each of the old Carnegie mansion’s nooks and crannies, the encroaching apocalypse being beaten back by designers.  Cool, right?

Well, yes and no.  In an exhibition where the only shiny object is a giant solar collector (see above), I find myself craving  eye candy.  In a show where everything is profound, I find myself desperate for the vapid.  Now, there are some truly innovative projects on display:  the water powered (don’t ask) H20tel by Dutch architect Thomas Rau,  the Swedish-designed Power Aware Cord, an electrical cable with moving lights to indicate power usage, Jorre van Ast’s very clever Jar Tops (see below) intended to turn old jars into new kitchenware.   But amid all this highly commendable world-saving, I found myself drawn to the rare items that were merely eye-catching. For instance, I loved the bright posters that Dutch designer  Mieke Gerritzen had hand-painted (rather than printed) in a Chinese factory and “furumai,” a device by Takram Design Engineering of Japan, created to allow water droplets to dance on a coated paper surface.

In truth,  I think the seriousness of the objects on display is  ill-served by seriousness of the exhibition design (see below).  So much of what’s on display is dun-colored, earth-toned,  aesthetically neutral, or even kind of ugly,  that the prevailing brownness — the pedestals, the museum walls — just swallows it all up.   The design on display is serious stuff;  but maybe it needs to party.

I guess  I’ll devote the next several decades to arguing the value of eye-candy.


JarTops by Jorre van Ast.

Cooper Hewitt Triennial exhibition design by Tsang Seymour.