Ellen Lupton Makes Cooper-Hewitt Design Exhibit Green
Ellen Lupton, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt museum, tells how the museum went green for their big design Triennial.
Every three years, the museum takes a look at what’s happening across the disciplines of architecture, products, fashion, graphics, and more. Cooper-Hewitt’s most recent National Design Triennial exhibition opened in May. The fourth show in the series— Why Design Now?—has a global scope. To produce the Triennial, a team of four curators looked for innovative work that addresses human needs and environmental challenges. Designers worldwide are thinking about sustainable materials and techniques, whether they are creating a folding bicycle, a solar lamp, a handheld device, or a handmade garment.
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Cooper-Hewitt’s Why Design Now? Exhibit
Here’s a geeky look at how the show is physically displayed. Installing an exhibition can be appallingly wasteful. Working with Tsang Seymour Design, the museum wanted to improve our own processes in light of what this exhibition is all about. Museums often build temporary walls and custom-made display cases and then tear them apart when the show comes down. Large-scale printed graphics typically are mounted with adhesives on to petroleum-based materials such as Sintra (a high-density plastic) and GatorFoam (a lightweight foam board), which can’t be reused or recycled. When exhibitions travel, casework and graphics get shipped from venue to venue in heavy crates. All of this consumes energy and wastes materials.
In order to do more with less, the design team sought to use eco-safe materials, modular components, and materials-reduction strategies. We used Flor Fedora carpet tiles to demarcate the display areas, in place of heavy platforms. Flor makes the tiles from 80 percent-recycled materials and has a system in place for taking the tiles back from consumers and completely recycling them. A thin wire cable further defines the space, discouraging visitors from wandering in. These modular elements are easy to reconfigure for a different space when the exhibition travels. Object labels are mounted to angled boxes made from Medite FR, a composite of 100 percent post-industrial recycled wood, finished with zero-VOC paint and varnish. The labels are printed on Ply-Corr cardboard, a material made from 50 percent post-consumer waste.
Where needed, simple Medite stands elevate objects off the floor. The stands are designed with open sides to reduce the use of materials. Hanging on the walls, photo blow-ups are printed directly on to fabric; these lightweight banners roll up for shipping, and they don’t have to be glued to an additional substrate. The exhibition catalog, designed by Michael Bierut and Yve Ludwig of Pentagram, is printed with soy-based inks on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Stepping back to view the exhibition after it opened, we were truly pleased to see that this light touch isn’t just better for the environment; it allows for a better museum experience, too. The open, uncluttered design makes the objects the stars of the show.
Lupton, Cara McCarty, Matilda McQuaid, and Cynthia Smith curated the Triennial. Installation photos by Matt Flynn.
Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary of design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.