5 Questions: Design for a Living World


Isaac Mizrahi, Alaska, kicky pumps, salmon leather.

Stumped? OK, let’s try another one: Kate Spade, Bolivia, handbags, palm leaves.

No? How about Maya Lin, red maple, Maine?

Such Riddle-of-the-Sphinx juxtapositions define Design for a Living World, an exhibition now showing at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City through January 4, 2010. The exhibition, organized and commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, brought 10 of the world’s best designers together to travel to far-flung places around the world and develop unique objects out of sustainably grown and harvested materials.

I was in Manhattan on Monday and walked over to the Cooper-Hewitt in a dutiful mood. Instead, I was repeatedly amazed by the exhibition: The objects in Design were numinous and fascinating. For instance:

  • Mizrahi’s dress and kicky pumps made of Alaskan salmon skin.
  • Kate Spade-designed handbags from Bolivian palm leaves (no way will you be able to buy knockoffs of these).
  • Wool ruglets by Christien Miendertsma, each knitted from the wool of a single, sustainably-farmed sheep.
  • Vases made by Hella Jongerius of chicle, the base of chewing gum.

And the presentation — which included video interviews with the designers and the arresting photography of Ami Vitale of the origins of the raw materials and the indigenous people who use them — knits the whole together into a rounded portrait of sustainability, making it tangible and beautiful.

If you can’t get to Manhattan, you can see the objects and learn about the stories behind them at nature.org/design. I asked Sara Elliott, the Conservancy’s project manager for Design for a Living World, to talk more about how this all came together:

Q: Design and conservation — it doesn’t seem like a natural fit at first glance. Why did the Conservancy decide to get involved in this project, and what’s the benefit for nature?

Sara Elliott: Design at its best is a kind of storytelling through objects.  The Nature Conservancy decided to commission thoughtful and innovative designers to create objects that tell stories about the places that we work and the conservation strategies we deploy to protect those places. The benefit to nature is an enhanced awareness of our connection to these far-away places and people through the everyday objects that surround us.

Q: About those designers — you’ve got some big names in there, like Isaac Mizrahi, Kate Spade New York and Maya Lin. But which came first — the designers, the products, the countries? And how did you match which designers to which materials?

Sara Elliott: The materials and places actually came first. We did an enormous amount of research to find natural materials that help sustain the landscapes and communities that we work with around the world. The materials and the places that they are sourced from were then presented to the designers, who selected them based on their interests.

In some instances, the designers had a preference for a specific location. For example, Maya Lin wanted to work with a material and a place that is close to where she lives so she selected Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified red maple from Maine. Hella Jongerius is known for her work with unusual materials, so she was a natural fit for chicle latex from Mexico.

Q: Speaking of which…there are some strange and fascinating materials in the exhibition, including salmon skin, vegetable ivory and chicle — the product that used to be the base of gum. How did these raw materials get chosen?

Sara Elliott: All of the raw materials featured in the exhibition are sustainable.  That is, the rate and quantity of extraction is balanced with the source ecosystem’s capacity to regenerate. In most instances, protection of that ecosystem is crucial to providing livelihoods to the people that live there.

In southwest Alaska, for example, the Conservancy is working with its partners to restore key fish habitats, including the pristine waters that support the salmon industry. The vegetable ivory carvings in the exhibition come from the seed of the ivory nut palm, which was introduced as an alternative to mangrove carving, a practice that until the 1980’s was damaging the mangrove forests of Pohnpei. And the harvesting of chicle has been practiced by the Mayan people who live on the Yucatan for thousands of years, and today is part of a sustainable approach to forest stewardship that includes managed and limited logging.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a designer’s experience during this project?

Sara Elliott: I have a couple of favorite moments with the designers.

One was taking Christien Miendertsma to Idaho to introduce her to the Panama sheep herd at Lava Lake Ranch. At one point, Christien was literally surrounded by a flock of 3,000 sheep, coming off of the fields after months of grazing on gorgeous pastures of southern Idaho. Seeing the animals, the landscape and the designer all in one stunning view was a perfect encapsulation of the project, and I love how her rug captures that moment and honors both the animals and the place that sustains them.

Another great moment was introducing Ted Muheling to the Kapingamarangi carvers on Pohnpei and watching him instantly connect with these people who live and work literally on the other side of the world, through the language of craft.  In that moment, as Ted worked alongside the carvers in the Kapinga Village, there was no difference between what he does every day in his studio in New York and the carvers, working to transform a simple nut into something beautiful and lasting.

Q: Last questions — how is the Conservancy using the exhibition to bring a conservation ethic to a wider audience? And what are the messages you want people to take away from this exhibition about sustainability?

Sara Elliott: The Conservancy is using the exhibition as what Sanjayan, our lead scientist, likes to call a “mental prompt” to get people to think about where things the things that surround them come from, and their impacts on the environment that sustains us all. Not just the tables and chairs in our homes, but also the water we drink, the food we eat — all of the services that nature provides that we simply cannot live without. These things come from somewhere, someone harvested them, and inevitably how and what we consume will determine the kind of world we leave to the next generation.

I think this awareness, a new habit of reflecting on where things come from, is a crucial first step in designing a more sustainable world.

(Image: Chicle products in the Design for a Living World exhibition. Credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC.)

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  1. What a great post! I’m amazed at the creativity of man as I look at the photo at the top. Are these products expensive?

    1. Most are one-of-a-kinds, April — they’re really difficult to make and not for sale. There is talk about the Kate Spade bags being available in a limited edition run, however.

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