Curator Gène Bertrand on design for human needs

Meike Schipper
May 23rd 2019

Nature has always been a source of inspiration for many artists and designers, yet the urgency to connect to nature is more pressing than ever. Environmental issues such as climate change, food scarcity and plastic soup increasingly intervene with the world of art and design. Currently on display at both Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade (NL) and Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York (US) is the exhibition Nature: Collaboration in Design. It wonders; can nature be our partner?

This ambitious project has been in the making for over two years, and has resulted in an impactful, transdisciplinary exhibition on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Projects range from experimental prototypes to immersive installations, architectural constructions and clearcut consumer products.

We caught up with Gène Bertrand, curator at Cube Design Museum, about our human responsibility in taking care of our planet and the possibilities of design that may help us along the way.

Define nature

The human impact on our planet is undeniable. Climate change, synthetic biology, mass urbanization – ‘we were here’ echoes all over. However, we are not the anti-natural species that merely threatens and eliminates nature, but rather the catalysts of evolution. Nature is changing, and so are we. It’s a trend that deserves global attention and thorough exploration that the exhibition Nature is now providing.

The collaboration between Cooper Hewitt and Cube Design Museum around the theme of nature evolved organically. Due to the broadness of the theme, collaborating seemed the perfect way to offer a global perspective that reflects the diversity of ideas and projects. Curators from both museums worked closely together with a global advisory committee to select the participating projects and define its main theme and sub-themes.

This next nature animal is called Aquajelly 2.0. Design team FESTO transfers knowledge from the world of nature to the world of automation. The aquatic robots move themselves in water by mimicking the movements of jellyfish tentacles. They can be used data collection and diagnostics in water management.

“The theme is very urgent from a lot of different viewpoints," Gène explains, "the width of the subject makes it interesting,”

The title of the exhibition, Nature: Collaboration in Design, echoes a similar abundance. How does the exhibition define the concept of nature? “Of course, we had quite some discussions about that, because everyone had their own view and definition”, Gène laughs.

“Eventually, nature is everything at all times. If you speak to people about nature now, they will most likely talk about romantic green scenery. But in the 4 and half billion years of Earth’s existence, nature came in different appearances. So, to us, nature is a transforming phenomenon. And humankind is part of that. Everything we have, what we do and what we are, from smartphone to coffee, it all stems from earth. It is a closed system.”

Nature is a transforming phenomenon, and humankind is part of that.

Force of nature

The exhibition responds to anthropogenic climate change and the lack of proper cooperation with nature that characterizes our period in time. “We are now in an era in which our human impact is much bigger than it used to be, because we can encompass the whole earth with our actions. Before, our local actions only seemed to have local consequences. Right now, we are aware that our actions have consequences for people on the other side of the world. This gives us a certain responsibility, and I believe that we need to develop more sense of this.”

Ensamble Studio researched geological transformation processes — like sedimentation, erosion, weathering, and compaction — as methods to redesign the landscape. These interventions called Structures of Landscapes are born from the landscape itself, preserving the natural structures from which they have been cast.

“In the Anthropocene, humans are a force of nature. We have both the power to destroy and to (re)construct. We caused a problem, but we are also part of the solution. Finding this solution requires us to explore new paths and develop new methods. We cannot keep going in the same way, we need to find a new formula to live.”

Humans are a force of nature. We have both the power to destroy and to (re)construct.

Yet, Gène emphasizes the optimistic character of the exhibition and its spirit of celebration. “We want to offer an optimistic perspective. Of course, we have to make crucial behavioral changes, but there are also technological and scientific developments that can help us.”

Design is a verb

By combining design, science and technology, the distinction between the born and the made is fading. We are creating a ‘next nature’ which is unpredictable as ever: from aquatic robots and interactive landscapes, to regenerative architecture and shoes that are grown.

The sixty-two projects included in Nature demonstrate extensive collaborations between these disciplines. “Design can simply not be separated from technology and science anymore.” This naturally has its effect on the design profession.

Design can simply not be separated from technology and science anymore.

Gène explicitly focuses on design as a process and a verb; designing. “We want to show that the process is more important than the final output. Because the process of designing offers new perspectives and shows new possibilities. And if you follow the process, the outcome might be completely different from your initial expectations.” And that is exactly what is needed to find new formulas to live.

The abundance of man-made plastics in our natural world has created a new material called Plastiglomerate, which marks the shift from old notions of nature and culture towards new definitions. Designer Shahar Livne speculates about the future of this material within the context of craftsmanship.

The work of Shahar Livne functions as a good example. “She envisions plastic as a basic material for the future, because plastic material fuses with rocks over time. With traditional crafts, this new material can be shaped into new products. Her project mainly asks questions. Is our current perception of plastic correct?”

Design for human needs

Cube Design Museum propagates a specific definition of design: design for human needs and human ambitions. Yet how do our human needs relate to the needs of nature? “Human needs are nature’s needs”, Gène states, “because humans are part of nature. We all need oxygen and nutrition. If you take care of nature, you take care of yourself. And if you love something, you want to take care of it. It’s not just a necessity to nurture the earth - we do it because we are part of it, and because we love it.”

Does design have the power to bring nature and humanity back together? “It does not have to, because they are one and the same thing,” Gène responds. “It is about creating awareness that humans are already part of nature. We are not able to control the environment, but we do have influence, even if it is hard to see.” Nature aims to asks questions and start a conversation. What is nature, and how do we relate to it? “That is what we do at Cube Design Museum: start a dialogue with the visitors and encourage them to find their own position.”

Nature: Collaboration in design is currently on show until 19 January 2020 at both Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade (NL) and Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York (US).

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