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Nature Conservancy Premieres ’Design For A Living World’

Originally Posted: May 17, 2009

Edward Callaghan

Ten of the world's most visionary designers participated in the "Design For A Living World" at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Photos by Ann Watt

New York City - Some 500 guests filled the elegant galleries and the garden patio of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum - once the home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie - for a special preview of The Nature Conservancy's ground breaking exhibition, "Design for a Living World" on Wednesday May 13.

Bamboo components for living arrangements by Ezri Tarazi.

A traveling exhibition, "Design for a Living World" features objects created by 10 visionary designers made from sustainable, natural materials. The Nature Conservancy collaborated with prominent designers from the worlds of fashion, industrial and furniture design. Each designer focused on a natural material from a specific place where the Conservancy works to create beautiful, sustainable objects of art and design that reference as their place of origin.

The exhibition features designs by Yves Béhar, Stephen Burks, Hella Jongerius, Maya Lin, Christien Meindertsma, Abbott Miller, Isaac Mizrahi, Ted Muehling, Paulina Reyes for Kate Spade and Ezri Tarazi.

"Design for a Living World" is co-curated by Miller and Ellen Lupton. Miller, a partner in the New York office of Pentagram, is recognized for his innovative installations for the National Building Museum, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Freud Museum in Vienna, Austria and the permanent exhibitions at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt and is the author of many books on design.

Designer Abbott Miller, photojournalist Ami Vitale and designer Pauline Reyes sign copies of "Design for a Living World."

"Bill Uhlfelder, the new director of The New York Nature Conservancy, Joe Gleberman, Board Chairman and Mark Tercek, President and Chief Executive of The Nature Conservancy welcomed the guests. Gleberman, a long-time major supporter of The Nature Conservancy, summed up the organization's mission as "Quite simply, we want to save the planet."

But there were no dire warnings or messages of gloom and doom. Mark Tercek, Sara Elliot, the project director and Dr. M. Sanjayan the organization's lead scientist clearly saw the exhibition as a celebration of what is possible and a chance to make the public aware of the origins of everyday items from tools to jewels.

Mark Tercek, President and Chief Executive of The Nature Conservancy.

In his remarks, Tercek stated, "As we become an increasingly urban society, we are distancing ourselves from nature. To us, water comes from the kitchen sink or a plastic bottle - not a river or stream. Food comes from the grocery store, not a grassland ranch. Furniture comes from a national retail chain like IKEA or Pottery Barn, not a tropical hardwood forest."

Speaking to an unusually attentive audience, Tercek continued with a frank statement of our individual responsibility, "This exhibit is a reminder that as consumers, we hold enormous power. By choosing sustainable materials that support rather than deplete our natural resources, we can reshape our economy and preserve the lands and waters that sustain us all."

We were lucky enough to have a very special guide for the tour of the display halls, Dr. M. Sanjayan, who has been for the past four years, the Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. In this capacity he helps ensure that the best scientific ideas are adopted by the Conservancy and by the conservation community at large. Sanjayan holds a doctorate in Conservation Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Masters in Ecology from the University of Oregon. His current work focuses on how conservation might be achieved in the poorest places on earth - how ecosystem services if properly managed can benefit both human and wildlife communities. His work has received extensive media coverage, from The New York Times to National Public Radio to half a dozen appearances on NBC's Today Show. A recent BBC TV documentary "Wildlife in a War Zone," which he developed and hosted, was a finalist at the International Wildlife Film Festival, in Montana. As well, he spent the last several years working with each of the designers and was a perfect tour guide for the guests.

Designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Strolling through the beautifully mounted show, it is abundantly clear that the designers got the message and translated that into products made from sustainable natural materials that reference their origin. Among the creations featured in the exhibition are fashions by Mizrahi - a cocktail dress with matching floor length coat and a vampy pair of high heels made of Alaskan Salmon skin. Working with what is typically a waste product of the salmon industry, he designed a dress that references the scales of the fish from which it was made.

In one display room, Christien Meindertsma's enormous rug held center court. The designer used wool sourced from a sustainable sheep ranch in Idaho to create a large-scale knit rug - a "flock" of smaller components, each one made from 3.5 pounds of wool, the yield of a single sheep.

Maya Lin, whose work tends to lean toward large scale works such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., (which she designed while still an undergraduate art student at Yale University). While Lin is still probably best known for that revolutionary piece of public art, she's now doing incredible work around the country and the world that brings together her interests in history, culture, nature, environmental sustainability, and social justice through her earthwork sculptures and architecture

Event sponsor Lawrence Benenson and Karine Ohana.

Using wood harvested from a Forest Stewardship Council-certified Nature Conservancy property in Maine, Lin crafted a striking piece of furniture that highlights the beauty of an individual tree.

Several of the most fascinating objects were more utilitarian. Acclaimed New York industrial designer Stephen Burks traveled to Australia's Gondwana Link to design the "Totem" - a tool made from reclaimed native jamwood that the local Noongar people can use to make and package a line of organic herb and sandalwood-based cosmetics that they are developing for export.

Yves Behar worked with a women's chocolate cooperative in Costa Rica to develop packaging for the raw cocoa they use to make a traditional hot drink and a grating tool that evokes the sensual nature of chocolate, delivering an intense experience through taste, form and narrative. Co-curator Abbott Miller traveled to Bolivia to work with indigenous woods to create simple to assemble chairs in a Shaker style that require only a rubber mallet to assemble.

The exhibition also features a number of beautiful objects from precious jewelry to unique plates and vases all created from sustainable natural materials found in The Nature Conservancy properties. Dutch designer Hella Jongerius traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula to observe traditional chicle latex harvesting and explore the possibilities of chicle beyond its use in chewing gum production, resulting in more than 20 embellished vessels and plates.

Yoni Rabino with New York Nature Conservancy's Joe Gleberman and Bill Uhlfelder.

Internationally acclaimed jewelry designer Ted Muehling transformed Micronesian vegetable ivory and ocean-harvested black and Keishi pearls into a series of bracelets, necklaces and other items, spotlighting the beauty of these natural materials. Paulina Reyes for Kate Spade's innovative handbags were made with sustainable woods, cotton and jipijapa, a fiber made of palm leaves.

One of the most striking displays was that of Ezri Tarazi, a veritable forest of useful objects. The industrial designer created a series of adjustable components that connect to mature bamboo stalks from China's Yunnan Province, creating a domestic forest that supports a range of living arrangements. The amazingly versatile constructions could function as a magazine rack, TV stand, towel holder - you name it.

Ted Muehling and Marty Sarandria.

Mizrahi, sporting his usual head-covering bandana, was busy accepting congratulations on the critic's reception of his new reality series "The Fashion Show." Like the other designers, he signed 100 copies of the gorgeous coffee table book "Design for a Living World." The book features specially commissioned photographs from award-winning photojournalist Ami Vitale, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and National Geographic.

Among the chic crowd of conservationists and design fans were real estate magnate and art collector Lawrence Benenson of Benenson Capital Partners - one of the preview's sponsors. Benenson was accompanied by Karine Ohana gorgeous in a cream colored Galliano. Benenson whose family recently gave over to Yale University the bulk of the family's extensive art collection of modern, contemporary and African art was collecting something different that night. The 40 year old proclaimed by Art Forum - one of the "new Medicis" asked the designers to each personalize their autographs with an additional little drawing.

Southampton's Katherine and Gary Andreassen were absolutely delighted at having met artist and architect Maya Lin. Katherine was "thrilled to meet my idol." Culture writer David Noh resplendent in a bold plaid Versace jacket raved about the "extraordinary showcases lit to perfection" which architect and designer Michael Love wholeheartedly concurred. Also at the fete were Hamptonites Sara Herbert Galloway and society/celebrity photographer Rob Rich on a rare evening off.

Cocktails in the elegant Great Room.

Bravo TV Real Housewives' hunk Maximiliano Palacio, a former polo player and now actor/model, proved himself to be more of a young babe magnet than simply cougars like Kelly Bensimon. And he was wearing considerably more. Last time on the reality show he sported nothing but a loin cloth, at the museum fete he was decked out in a pricey Sarar suit and lavender shirt.

The elegant cocktail party preview - a joint effort between The Nature Conservancy and Cooper-Hewitt - ran so smoothly thanks to the superior efforts of event planner, Scott Perrin, Managing Member, The Event Office which handles some of the most exclusive events in the city and The Hamptons.

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Hewitt - granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper - as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the museum has been a branch of the Smithsonian since 1967. The museum presents compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational programs, exhibitions and publications.

The museum is located at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue in New York City. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 12 noon to 6 p.m. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. General admission is $15; senior citizens and students ages 12 and older, $10. Cooper-Hewitt and Smithsonian members and children younger than age 12 are admitted free. For further information, call 212-849-8300 or visit www.cooperhewitt.org.


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