April 2, 2012  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Born out of Necessity: Contemporary Design and the Myth of Problem Solving

Have you ever encountered a definition—of art, design, poetry, or any creative endeavor—that you found truly satisfying? The ones that have the soundbite-ready punch that allows them to take hold in the public memory tend to be generic and superficial. Unless, as a curator, you learn to use them as doors into the sublime complexity of the field you explore and love.

Installation view of Born out of Necessity; view of the Foragers installation

The Department of Architecture and Design recently opened a new installation of the contemporary design galleries on the third floor, curated by yours truly and Kate Carmody, comprising about 130 objects from the collection that touch upon one of the most enduring definitions of design: “problem solving.” Here goes: an issue arises, more or less pressing and universal, depending on circumstances; the designer analyzes it and distils it into goals; she then creates a road map and works with the means at her disposal. These means range from the budget, the materials and techniques she can afford and master (for an object or a chair, for instance), or the code and software she favors (for a digital product) all the way to the requirements of distribution and marketing (if the product is meant for wide dissemination). If she is good, her process will result in an elegant, functional, economical, and meaningful solution to the problem. So simple, so linear. From this perspective, good design is the outcome of an inspired syllogism.

Yet today—just like decades ago—some designers first design new problems, and then tackle them to solve them. In their minds, design is not only problem solving, but also “problem making,” and their process is focused on finding possible solutions to problems that do not yet exist. Born out of Necessity showcases some of these objects, works that can be read according to the traditional view of design and yet sometimes veer dramatically from its visual and functional catalog. This is the case with the exhibition’s centerpiece, Foragers, by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The designers, champions of a field of theory and practice called Critical Design, imagine a possible future in which the problem of food shortages inspires the solution of a series of prostheses that enable human beings to digest algae, roots, leaves, etc., essentially outsourcing our gastrointestinal mechanisms.

Installation view of Born out of Necessity; view of the case with Kidney Transporter

Born out of Necessity focuses on the problems chosen by or assigned to the designers—some of them real, concrete, and urgent, and others foreseen or designed altogether to describe possible future scenarios—their urgency removed but no less intense in the designers’ minds. Some examples, such as Sea Shelter and the X-IT Emergency Escape Ladder, highlight emergencies at home or at sea, while others, such as Kidney Transporter or Water Cone, deal with medical emergencies or drought. And while some, earplugs for instance, celebrate everyday staples of problem solving, others describe a future in which meat can be engineered in vitro and modeled in new shapes. From objects that respond to pressing needs in developing countries to new solutions that are tailored to the Western urban environment, in some cases, the challenges specific to people with disabilities (the problems of a few) can offer ideas that lead to products that improve everybody’s life (solutions for all).

Installation view of Born out of Necessity; view of the Sea Shelter

Design’s predictive and narrative power comes alive in objects that address complex cultural developments, such as the need to incorporate environmental responsibility into everyday life, the desire to marry ancient religious beliefs with contemporary mores, or the desire to anticipate and prevent future technological and ecological quagmires. Goals and means come together in the design process, a remarkable synthesis in which the outcome—the object—is always much more, in significance, functionality, innovation, and elegance, than the sum of its parts.

Born out of Necessity is on view in the Museum’s third-floor Architecture and Design Galleries through January 28, 2013.