“In what ways can design act as a catalyst for change?”

“How can design help people learn?”

“How might design improve how people live?”

“What design strategies help make better local and regional economies?”

“How can design save what is authentic and essential to help communities thrive?”

These are the questions that organize the exhibition By the People: Designing a Better America, curated by Cynthia E. Smith at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Act, learn, live, make, save are the verbs enabled by design. But what is design itself, an act or a product? In the questions and the examples shown in the exhibition, design is neither fully a product nor an act. Rather, throughout the exhibition, design is an agent that enables actors and leads to actions.

Installation view of By the People: Designing a Better America. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Installation view of By the People: Designing a Better America. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

According to Smith’s introductory essay in the catalogue, work on the exhibition began after the Great Recession of 2008 and involved extensive field research across the United States, including interviews with designers, community advocates, philanthropists, academics, artists, local citizens, undocumented workers, developers, policymakers, and historians. One result of the extensive field research is a refreshing map of design and innovation in America. As Smith seeks to identify the pressing challenges faced by American communities, poverty and the history of injustice emerge as the underlying issues of the American landscape. The map of design today includes shrinking and regressing cities, rural areas as well as major regional metro areas. This map is not bounded by city centers but located in communities that find themselves dwelling at the edges, designing for what Smith identifies as “a shared prosperity.”

Cross-Border Community Station, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman & UCSD Cross-Border Initiative, 2015-present. (Photo: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman (Rene Jaime Torrero). Copyright: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman)

Cross-Border Community Station, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman & UCSD Cross-Border Initiative, 2015-present. (Photo: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman (Rene Jaime Torrero). Copyright: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman)

Some highlights of the exhibition include Teddy Cruz’s San Diego affordable housing project titled Living Rooms at the Border, Michael Maltzan‘s Crest Apartments housing project for homeless veterans in Los Angeles’s Van Nuys neighborhood, and Matthew Mazzotta’s Open House, a house that unfolds to become an open-air stage in York, Alabama. The design processes of these buildings incorporate the visions of different agencies and stakeholders. If these projects are examples of design as objects, other examples highlight how design is close to action: Farm Hack Tools, founded by independent farmers across America, develops and designs open-source agricultural tools in order to expand knowledge and technology of agriculture. The 4th Floor project is an attempt to create a new commons by converting the storage space of a library to a maker space in Chattanooga, Tennessee, thereby changing the traditional definition of a library from a place of consumption of information to production and sharing of knowledge. At a time when traditional public space is declining, these new commons are powerful alternatives. All these examples, spanning from buildings to commons, objects to actions, demonstrate how design today is an agent of change providing tools and bringing form to ideas.

By the People: Designing a Better America runs through February 26, 2017.

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