National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
Through January 9, 2011
Where do you find Norman Foster’s vast Masdar sustainable city in Abu Dhabi in the same galleries with self-adjustable $19 eyeglasses and a millet thresher powered by bicycle pedals?
At the Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the criteria this year seem to be urgency of need, a project’s minimal impact on the planet, and an indifference to most aesthetic considerations. The show makes you feel that a clock is ticking, and much of what you see is design on deadline.
Who cares about sculptural harmony if you have a planet to save? Today’s ungainly hybrid vehicles and solar tiles are expected to be superseded. The problem is that they’ll be superseded in a lot less than three years. If the challenges facing design are as serious as the decoratively-deprived show’s curators insist that they are, this should be an annual event.
In the three-year straitjacket, the status quo of the French AGV train ends up alongside the cutting edge of a Dutch Soil Lamp, powered by dirt, along with a nod to fashion in $4,000 Issey Miyake dresses that replicate jungle colors. Calling the exhibition a mixed bag is like calling the iPhone a successful product. Yet the scattershot Design Triennial compares favorably to the grab bag of novelty at the Whitney Biennial. The Cooper-Hewitt foregrounds function over form, but its values are in the right place.
Its galleries still aren’t. In a design universe that metamorphoses by the minute, the Cooper-Hewitt remains as awkward as ever, with cramped spaces where large-scale objects can’t fit. If any place needed a revolution in exhibition design, this is it. Don’t hold your breath.
It’s the curators’ good luck that one strong area of design innovation tends to be museum-unfriendly: communications and information graphics. You can look at these works on the Internet, where its audience is. Social marketing sites like .