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Review: 'Design for the Other 90%' at Mercy Corps' Action Center

United States, December 21, 2009

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D.K. Row

The Oregonian
December, 2009

When we think of design, we usually think of technologically advanced automobiles, gadgets and other objects that embody a race-to-the-moon wizardry. These creations fit our aspirational culture and make us feel design technology has elevated daily life into bolder realms. Think of the razzmatazz in the movie "Avatar."

But the brilliance of "Design for the Other 90%" is that this exhibit's roughly 30 objects are modest products made of simple materials, ranging from water purifiers to shelters for the homeless, all of them cheaply made, too.

Therein is the pull of this show that debuted at New York's Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum and is now at Mercy Corps' Action Center in Portland. This is a display of heartfelt ingenuity that reminds us that design principally solves problems and doesn't just refine life's daily tasks or make them more sleekly operational. It's also an exhibit of public spiritedness that may have particular resonance for these times darkened by financial turmoil and psychological unrest.

The exhibit isn't a polemic, though it raises issues of political scope. It doesn't preach for, or argue against, anything, though it presents several eye-widening statistics -- 90 percent of the world's 6.5 billion people can't afford to buy essential goods, for example, and half of the total population daily lives on what it would cost to buy a 12-ounce cup of Stumptown coffee ($2).

Rather, "Design" positions itself as an impassioned treatise on how to help that other 90 percent of the world, most of them in developing countries, for whom design is not a luxury or about welcoming the latest technology. For them, it's survival.

The more than 30 objects and products by designers and design teams come from around the world and solve or redress basic human needs like shelter, health, energy production, education and water safety.

For Portland's design and sustainability community, there is much to debate here. What's the best way to produce socially responsible design, for instance? It's one of many slightly politically hinged questions that have resulted in sharp elbow throwing within that community. But it's also too much inside baseball for most of us who are seeing the show.

I'd like to think that most just see smart solutions made by a team of rivals fighting to end world poverty.

Those solutions may look ordinary, like a cylindrical container made by P.J. and J.P.S. Hendrikse that can transport up to 75 liters of clean water. For those living where clean water sources are rare, the drum is a resourceful, if coarse, gem reliant on will and muscle: You can pull it across distances.

No-nonsense responses
Such is the wonder of nearly all of the exhibit's objects, namely that there isn't much. They're practical, no-nonsense responses to unburdening life. The LifeStraw made by Vestergaard Frandsen looks like a traveling toothbrush holder but can, after a few steps, crudely purify water. With its extended frame, the Big Boda Load-Carrying Bicycle created by several designers makes cargo transportation more realistic, if arduous on the legs. The Global Village Shelter by Ferrara Design Inc. requires no tools to assemble, rendering this low-cost shelter constructed out of biodegradable material an easy-to-use option during emergencies.

Of course, there are many other products worth mentioning -- solar dish kitchens, domed pit latrines, do-it-yourself irrigation and water-storage systems, ceramic coolers for fruits and vegetables, and solar-lighting systems. All of these are economical and locally produced, and for developing areas without electricity, they're also safe alternatives to dangerous lighting systems dependent on oil.

But what's even more fascinating about this show are the designs unrelated to food and shelter. Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child is a cheap -- $100 -- green portable computer that aids in basic learning skills. Purchased by governments in developing countries, the laptop is then distributed to schools.

Jaipur prosthesis
Master Ram Chandra Sharma and Dr. P.K. Sethi designed a low-cost and waterproof prosthesis made in Jaipur, India, that can be used with or without a shoe. It's also affordable. The prosthesis apparently has aided roughly 900,000 amputees, many of them land-mine victims.

Given the essential needs these designs serve, most of the products are, not surprisingly, used in developing countries -- Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, Uruguay, Nigeria, Vietnam and Belize, among others.

But one product was made here in America and may serve as inspiration for any community, including Oregon. The church pew made -- by University of Texas and Art Center College students and faculty -- for the Katrina Furniture Project was manufactured out of debris left in the wake of the tumultuous hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast region. The Katrina Project does more than teach people good woodworking skills, however. It shepherds emerging communities as they start businesses, too.

This is how the "Design" exhibit subtly shifts its emphasis from object to idea. Design can help nurture self-sufficiency for those who have yet to achieve it; but for those who live among the world's top 10 percent, it can be a vehicle toward self-awareness.

Again, this socially responsible movement is fraught with political factions. But the show is a way to join this fraternity without offending anyone, and in a timely way, no less, as the country struggles with extraordinary issues ranging from health care reform to the aftermath of a recession that has emptied bank accounts and leveled some people's grandest hopes.

This big show of modest, humble works reminds us that, in both fruitful and bad times, our goodness to one another has always been the difference.