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The Mixed Message of Earth-Friendly Design

The design store of the Museum of Modern Art sits on the south side of 53rd Street in New York, just up from the ritzy shops of Fifth Avenue. It is dedicated to adding more fabulous objects to the vast supply of goods our households — and planet — are bursting with.

MoMA itself sits across the road, where the windows of one of its galleries look out on the store. That streetside gallery, just about retail-size, is now hosting “Broken Nature,” an exhibition dedicated to the concept of “restorative design” — objects and projects that hope to heal a world so damaged by humans that it is becoming less livable by the year.

It’s a great topic, but there’s a problem that “Broken Nature” can’t seem to escape, maybe because it vexes just about all of “green” design: A visitor crossing from MoMA store to exhibition, and then back from show to store, wouldn’t have much need to shift mental gears. Both spaces are full of sleek objects that delight the eye and tickle the mind; both use delicious modern aesthetics to sell us on the things they want us to buy and the ideas they want us to buy into. A show, and a field, that seems set to push back against our consumerist urges feels almost consumed by them.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design, has built her exhibition around the idea that humans need to pay environmental “reparations” to a planet long enslaved to our short-term needs, and that designers can help make the payment. And yet a number of the objects in “Broken Nature” barely throw pennies into nature’s begging cup.

The exhibition features the elegant, geometric Anima dishware of the Japanese designer Kosuke Araki. They are made of a glossy black material that evokes the sleek, proto-modern ceramics that Josiah Wedgwood pioneered in the 1760s, winning him rights to be the earliest creator in the MoMA collection. Araki’s dishes update Wedgwood’s by being recycled from food waste.

Cups and decanters from the Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros are lovely, translucent things in biomorphic forms that recall the midcentury modern designs of Alvar Aalto. They are made of plant-based, petroleum-free algae and sugars.

Aluminum stools by the British designer Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami, from Japan, were made right on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, using a low-tech furnace on wheels. It is meant to let the city’s can collectors cast their finds into lovely, botanically-inspired seating that would look great in any modern kitchen.

With their attractive design and green cachet, I’d happily rush across the street to buy such objects in the MoMA store. In this pandemic year, many of us stay-at-homes have been eager to feather our nests as comfortably, and beautifully, as we possibly can; I certainly see the appeal, and even virtue, of designs that let us do that feathering with a minimum of damage to the planet. But the lust that gets inspired by such planet-friendly designs means that, deep down, these objects aren’t committed to solving the single, fundamental problem that is threatening our future: That too vast a number of humans want more objects, comforts and pleasures than the planet can provide without breakdown. The message these objects send, just by virtue of being so eminently covetable, is that covetousness is a sin we are almost powerless to resist. They send the faulty message that our species can get out of its existential predicament simply by craving somewhat more earth-friendly goods.

Even the projects in “Broken Nature” that don’t offer up buyable wares are often built around the same aesthetics that make modern goods so delicious. Sometimes that’s almost accidental, as when a modular artificial reef structure by Alex Goad, meant to go unseen by anyone but fish, happens to have a geometric order that would have pleased the most finicky Bauhauser.

In other cases, modern aesthetics seem to have trumped a project’s deeper message. A British firm called Dunne & Raby presents a line of pseudo-products that is deliberately far-fetched: Called “Foragers,” it imagines a wearable apparatus that allows humans to eat the cellulose that other animals graze on, thereby freeing us from Big Ag and the meat-industrial complex. That’s a fine techno-utopian vision, yet the props that represent that fictional gear are all impeccably crafted from glossy green plastic, like the next line of vacuums from Dyson. The Dunne & Raby conceit has content that is nice and radical; its forms would be right at home in MoMA’s store.

In 2020, it’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile topic for any exhibition than our planet’s fate. Joe Biden, hardly a rabid tree-hugger, has put environmental issues at the center of plans for his presidency. But with “Broken Nature,” MoMA’s investment in those issues seems less than substantial. It wouldn’t have seemed strange to see Ms. Antonelli given an entire floor — hell, the entire museum — to consider humanity’s future on our planet. Instead, “Broken Nature” has had to make do with a space smaller even than the shop it looks out on. (An advantage of the show’s gallery? The neighborhood’s amblers and shoppers are allowed in to MoMA’s ground floor, and its design exhibition, without paying an admission fee.)

Ms. Antonelli first launched her exhibition in 2019, in Milan, where it was a sprawling affair presenting fully 100 works. Here in New York, we have to make do with just 16 projects displayed in the flesh, plus another 20 sharing space on video monitors. Judging from Milan’s excellent catalog, Ms. Antonelli had to leave out many of the most ambitious and challenging, and least product-focused, of her original projects and presentations. There was the seating of Martino Gamper, cobbled together from discarded and wildly mismatched chair parts: Gamper proposes a Frankenstein-monster aesthetic that seems perfectly suited to our consumption-scarred planet.

Unlike those elegant stools made from discarded cans, Gamper’s furniture forces us to be aware of our discards even as we decorate with what they’ve become. I’d like to imagine that anyone whose nest gets feathered with a Gamper chair will be forever repairing it, rather than casting it out again on the street where it began life.

In Milan, aesthetics of any kind were pushed almost completely aside in the rolling water jugs by Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, which let African women make fewer and easier trips to the well; they suggest that, in our moment of crisis, design in the MoMA-store sense may need to give way to pure engineering.

“Broken Nature,” as scaled down for MoMA, feels of a piece with the museum’s long tradition of encouraging us to appreciate, and buy, the very best of modern design — which now includes designs that go “green.” But the New York exhibition doesn’t do enough to make us feel, with our deepest aesthetic instincts, that such consumption is precisely what needs to be overcome.

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