I'm a fan of great design wherever I find it, but even more so when clever creative minds devise brilliant contraptions that are so utilitarian they stand a real chance of changing real lives. Especially when they exude a simply beauty, and become profound examples of human ingenuity. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York is featuring such innovative designs in a new exhibition called “Design For The Other 90%.”
We've had enough US$2,000 Bauhaus office chairs and sofas made of llama fur to last interior designers a lifetime decorating celebrity pied-a-terres. These designers are looking beyond high-dollar consumerism and toward the vast majority of the world for which innovation can truly be the difference between life and death.
The exhibition features work from engineers, architects, designers, social entrepreneurs, and even students. Their contraptions and concoctions are mind-boggling. They include a number of solutions for the billion people in developing countries without regular access to clean water; and a host of ideas for generating cleaner, renewable energy solutions in developing countries. For example, in Haiti, indigenous trees are used to produce charcoal for heating and cooking and light. The result - 90% of Haiti is now deforested, and thousands of children die of respiratory complications from breathing the indoor fumes. But innovators are looking to using sugarcane and corn cobs to create briquettes, which burn cleaner, are cheaper to produce, and could save the last of the forests in places like India, Brazil, Ghana and Haiti, where the technology is being deployed.
But the great ideas aren't limited to food and water and energy. They've also included education and healthcare, which often seem like overwhelming institutional monoliths that sheer design couldn't conquer. Ah, but design conquers all!
I love this Kinkajou Microfilm Projector and Portable Library that has already been employed in Mali and helped teach 3,000 illiterate adults how to read.
This StarSight concept uses solar power to bypass the conventional power and telephone grids to create a street lighting system that doubles and a wireless internet network that could survive disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis and keep the population and emergency services in contact and in usable light in the aftermath of disaster. The system is already in use in Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo.
Many of the entries that fall under the "shelter" category emerged from the ruins of Hurricane Katrina. In Texas, the Katrina Furniture Project uses debris left from the storm to help teach furniture design and construction, enabling refugee communities to rebuild homes, churches, and community facilities. The House of Dance & Feathers in New Orleans' Ninth Ward is a reincarnation of that city's oldest social aid and pleasure clubs, the Big Nine Social Club, as well as the Mardi Gras Indian tribes which have traditionally hailed from this most devastated corner of the city. The building functions as a museum and cultural centre for the neighbourhood, which is still struggling to rebuild and bring its residents - scattered across the country - home again.
I'm pleased to see clever designers, young and old, thinking beyond the Hammacher Schlemmer consumer and being celebrated for it. Ninety percent of the world's population may not be wealthy connoisseurs of objects d'art, but they do constitute the biggest underserved and massive potential market comprehensible. The possibilities are endless - these clever ideas are just a sliver of what is possible.