Sunday, May 10, 2009

Design for the Other 90% at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

(this show took place in 2007)

NEW YORK—Incongruously set within the formal, manicured garden of the Fifth Avenue mansion that houses the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, "Design for the Other 90%" features objects like pre-fab emergency shelters, terra cotta water filters, high-capacity load-carrying bicycles and manually powered water pumps. These objects are bordered by sandbags and wood pallets and interspersed with signs announcing statistics like "More than one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water."

"Design for the Other 90%" refers to the 90% of people who do not live in the First World, whose needs are of a more basic and pressing nature than buying the latest electronic, high-tech gadget. For this population in the developing world, obtaining access to food and clean water are much more immediate concerns.

Celebrated design often focuses on aesthetics more than solutions to basic problems. Most design targets the early adaptors and taste-makers who are in the top 10% wealth bracket of the world. 

By contrast, this exhibition focuses on designers who are striving to improve living conditions in simple ways for "the other 90%."  

Curator Cynthia E. Smith has assembled a diverse selection of objects—most of them decidedly low-tech—that are highly practical and improve the lives of people living in rural, impoverished areas.

Some of the simplest designs are also the most impressive. 

The "Q Drum" designed by Pieter Hendrikse is a water container shaped like a wheel or donut with a hole through the middle. A rope can be put through the hole, and by pulling with the rope the container can be rolled along. This is an alternative to carrying heavy jugs of water for long distances. 

Another simple design from International Development Enterprises (IDE) India is a giant, 10,000 liter plastic bag used to collect water from monsoon rains in India. This enables irrigation water to be stored underground in a hand-dug pit, which is far more economical than building a cement storage tank.

My favorite product is a fusion of ancient and cutting-edge technologies. Portable Light Team has created a textile that uses photovoltaic materials to convert sunlight into electricity, and can be used as a light source itself when needed. 

In partnership with the Huichol people of rural Mexico, Portable Light technology has been woven into carrying bags that also incorporate traditional Huichol designs and weaving techniques. Portable Light is a valuable asset to the Huichol, who use it to help illuminate their homes so they can study and work after sundown. 

Since they are semi-nomadic people who must frequently travel long distances on foot to get to work or school, Portable Light can be carried with them to help light their way, make traveling safer.

"Design for the Other 90%" expands awareness of important innovations in design, not only to enhance the aesthetics and usability of products, but also to improve the lives of billions of people in their daily struggle to grow food, find safe drinking water, and carry their loads.  

By seeing this exhibit, we of the top 10% get a sobering perspective on the daily struggles of "the other 90%."

Many designs give us a hopeful glimpse of many improved lives in the future, as these products are adapted.The exhibition catalog seems necessary to get a good understanding of these products and how they are used. 

The exhibition could be more informative, with demonstrations of how the products are used, perhaps on video monitors. Without seeing the products in action, it's sometimes difficult to determine their purpose. 

I hope that this will become a traveling exhibition.  

It seems important to expose more people to the concepts of good design, not only to beautify and enhance the lives of the top 10%, but as a means of improving the quality of life for all people, 100% of them.