Design for the Other 90%

Review

of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on August 10, 2007

  • Description:

    That this study of designs for some of the world poorest people is mounted in the garden of a mansion in the middle of Manhattan’s East Side is an irony I am sure is not lost on most visitors. That being said, the Cooper-Hewitt has put together a scrappy little exhibition constructed of simple, even humble, materials evocative of the exhibition’s main premise, namely, that thoughtful design can be applied not just to fancy cars and designer gowns for the richest 10% of the world’s population, but also to solve literally “life and death” challenges for the “other 90%”.

    The exhibition is physically and conceptually divided into thematic sections such as Transport, Shelter, Water, and Health. As you enter each section, structures and design objects are placed so you can walk around and visually examine them (but not touch them! There had to be as many “DO NOT TOUCH” signs in this exhibition as there were explanatory labels. I definitely found this a downfall of this otherwise excellent exhibition. I wish the docent/guard/staff person ambling around the Cooper-Hewitt’s garden could have had a cart with touchable devices for visitors to try out and examine more closely.)

    In each section there were elegant ideas and clever, and out of necessity economical, uses of materials. The exhibition design is also very simple, almost minimalistic: Raw wood and plexi exhibition cases with exposed hardware, Large cloth graphics stretched on wooden frames in each thematic zone, and simply printed labels mounted on funky wood and metal stands.

    By conventional standards, Design for the Other 90% is not a splashy, or even beautiful exhibition, nor should it be, given its subject matter. It is, however, inspiring. I applaud the intelligence and spirit behind every object and every design shown here.

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