Into the Wild

How far would you go to source a new material? And what would you do once you found it? Intrepid designers provide answers for an upcoming Cooper-Hewitt show.

Click here to view a slideshow of all the Nature Conservancy projects.

There were no direct flights to where the Nature Conservancy sent half a dozen designers last year. They traveled to scrub forests in Bolivia, volcanic atolls in Micronesia, and eucalyptus groves in southwestern Australia. The Conservancy’s mandate for the trips: Figure out how to incorporate some sustainably harvested local material into product prototypes that could help draw attention to threatened ecosystems and possibly lead to thriving export markets.

The designers included established eminences (Hella Jongerius, Yves Béhar), rising hotshots (Stephen Burks), and emerging names (Christien Meindertsma). They lived in rustic accommodations while meeting with local craftspeople and Conservancy staff, and came home inspired to transform, say, the trunks of raspberry jamwood shrubs into skin-cream dispensers (Burks) and strands of Yucatán chicle latex into wrappings for ceramic vases (Jongerius).

These experiments will be exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in “Design for a Living World” (May 14, 2009–January 4, 2010), organized by Abbott Miller, who was one of the participants, and his wife, Cooper-Hewitt curator Ellen Lupton. Don’t expect any of the objects to actually save a habitat anytime soon. They’re idealistic, dreamy, and conceptual—exactly the kind of galvanizing open-endedness that the curators intended.

“We wanted to bring out a whole gamut of responses to the idea of engagement with materials and communities,” Miller explains. “We didn’t want to insist upon full-on product designs with guaranteed markets of some kind.” Lupton adds, “If we’d placed too many constraints on the designers and expected some factory to be able to tool up for the work—well, that would have made for a boring show.”
Instead, finished and half-finished models will be displayed alongside rough or meticulous sketches, in vitrines with legs made from sustainably harvested Bolivian cedar. Photos from the designers’ travels will be printed on recyclable aluminum panels. “We’ve given equal weight to the context, process, and finished artifact,” Miller says. “We also wanted to tell a story about how designers’ minds work, whether it’s for the most industrial production or the most Luddite handcrafting.”

The exhibit’s mixture of talent resulted from what Lupton calls “a long matchmaking process.” The Conservancy had dreamed up the project a few years ago as a follow-up to its acclaimed 2001 photo show, “In Response to Place,” which featured the work of 12 photographers, including William Wegman and Sally Mann. They documented spots that the Nature Conservancy is trying to protect, scattered from Alabama to Indonesia. The show “was a huge success, and it traveled for six years straight,” says Sara Elliott, the Conservancy’s project director for “Design for a Living World.” In 2007, the nonprofit asked field scientists to suggest wild or cultivated flora or fauna that produce materials potentially intriguing to designers, and that grow in regions threatened by development or shortsighted agricultural practices. Armed with a 20-item shortlist, Miller explains, “we looked around for designers who have track records of working with materials in those veins, and who are clearly sympathetic to conservation causes.”

Ten designers signed on, although in the end, three did not get to travel. Maple lumber from Maine was shipped to Maya Lin for carving into a sawtooth-texture table, and Chinese bamboo was exported to Israel, where Ezri Tarazi adapted the poles into perforated shelving supports. A Parisian processor sliced Alaskan salmon skins into ivory-colored sequins for Isaac Mizrahi’s eveningwear. “The trips were only worth arranging to places where the material is not just treated as a commodity, but part of deep local traditions of harvesting and sustainable use,” Elliott says.

That is, rather than have Mizrahi watch salmon bloodily peeled at a commercial fishery, the Conservancy sent Christien Meindertsma—a young Dutch fabric artisan who keeps track of which sheep’s wool goes into her sweaters and ottomans—to a pesticide-free sheep ranch in Idaho. There, she decided to use oversize needles to knit individual animals’ shearings into hexagonal carpet modules, while making tags documenting which creature shed the fibers.

One of the most remote treks for the exhibit—to Pohnpei island in Micronesia, where black-lipped oysters produce black pearls, and palm tree seeds are creamy and hard like ivory—was assigned to Ted Muehling, whose jewelry and housewares often incorporate forms and artifacts from sea creatures. He only reluctantly accepted the offer (“I’m not much of an adventurer”), but he’d already read a book about Pohnpei, by Oliver Sacks, describing a community of congenitally colorblind natives: “So I thought, ‘Hmm, interesting, yes.’ It was too much of an odd little kismet thing to refuse,” he explains.

After a grueling 35-hour flight, Muehling settled into “a nice hut on stilts with lovely hardwood floors,” he says. He watched locals carve fragrant palm seeds into tourist trinkets, and developed a fondness for the misshapen pearls that Micronesian fishermen usually can’t market. “I prefer the incidental growths, in funny little baroque shapes,” he says. For the Cooper-Hewitt, he made a strand of handsomely mismatched pearls and carved palm seeds into manta-ray-shaped earrings as well as cuffs faceted like turtle shells.

His luxurious one-offs, however, aren’t likely to set off a buying craze, and even if they did, the Micronesians are not yet set up to farm quantities of the seeds and pearls. Still, the exhibit “will definitely call attention to these materials,” Muehling says. “And maybe someone who comes to the show will think of a bigger market for these in the design world. We’ve opened up possibilities of connections.”

One mass-market product has already arisen from the exhibit. The museum gift shop will be selling Glee Gum, an organic chewing gum from a Rhode Island manufacturer named Verve, Inc. The company concocted a new flavor in honor of “Design for a Living World”: Yucatán honey and cardamom, with ingredients harvested near the chicle trees that supplied Jongerius’s latex strands. You may want to start chewing the gum before you step into the show, so that amid the photos of chicle oozing from tree trunks, your tastebuds can be expanding their horizons, too.

I.D. contributing editor Eve M. Kahn co-writes the Antiques column for The New York Times.

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