One of this summer’s big exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt, America’s design museum, explores “the unique role design can play in pursuing peace.” How many people will hear that and roll their eyes? So often, the visual arts either content themselves with dark, bitter commentary or stay out of the fray altogether. The notion of involving design in the solution feels so optimistic, even I am skeptical: Okay, great, but how? Huge forces of geopolitical contest, power, greed, oppression, and just a slingshot of imagination against them?
A slingshot with velocity.
Moving through the exhibit—pausing, stunned, at one project after another—you realize just how powerful design can be, and how many ways it can work.
A decade ago, for example, the Colombian Ministry of Defense collaborated with a Bogota-based ad agency on campaigns to persuade rebels to disarm and—what could easily have been a cliché—come home for Christmas. But the poster series the agency created, In a Mother’s Voice, distills emotion into a single short paragraph that appears below tender childhood photos: “Before being a guerilla fighter, you are my daughter [my son]. This Christmas I wait for you at home. Demobilize. During Christmas everything is possible.”
I gaze at the posters for a long time, imagining those words landing.
Several projects suggest empathy, engendered by information, as the foundation for change. The Conflict Kitchen is a place I now wish I could go: a takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh that offered food from countries the United States where the United States was entangled in conflict, including Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, North Korea, Palestine, and the Haudensee Confederacy in upstate New York. The restaurant closed when its funding was withdrawn.
Papers, Please is a video game you play as a low-level border agent forced to decide, within a tangle of bureaucracy, subjectivity, and conflicting agendas, who can enter the country and who should be rejected and arrested. I am scared even to play.
Other projects urge accountability. HarassMap turns anonymous reports into data and maps locations where Egyptian women experience daily sexual harassment. Shimmering metallic rugs are woven from—look closely—discarded bullet casings. They were collected in Colombia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Mexico, Spain, and the United States. And their markings can track international arms trafficking routes, backdoor diplomacy, and secret military interventions.
Unraveling the NSU Complex is geometrically beautiful, but chilling when you realize it is a floor diagram from the 2006 Neo-Nazi murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel, Germany. Made possible when Hessen police documents were leaked, the diagram pinpoints the positions of various witnesses—including a German intelligence agent who claimed not to have seen the murder.
It is a relief to move to the warmth of the Teeter-Totter Wall, three hot-pink seesaws poked through the slats of the grim steel U.S.-Mexico border wall. They rise and fall between Juarez on one side, El Paso on the other. The Rael San Fratello design partners tried to ask the border guards for permission to install the teeter-totters, were ignored, and did it anyway. Children immediately climbed onto the teeter-totters, soon joined by their moms. “Life must continue,” remarks Ronald Rael on the companion video, “and what is life without joy?”
Design can connect, that much is made obvious. Startblok Elzenhagen is a model for affordable housing that creates community between young refugees and Dutch kids the same age. They share public spaces, hallways, common areas—and through all those chance encounters, the hope is that they will find common ground in more profound ways. I imagine them easing into camaraderie, taking the chance of teasing one another, flirting a little, learning. Relaying what they learn to their parents. Letting it shape the rest of their lives.
Peace also comes from inclusion, hence Stalled!, a design and research initiative for a new restroom at the Cooper Hewitt. The proposal includes a meditation room. There is a Welcome area, a Wet area (no fuss over gender; all the stalls have full privacy doors and their own sinks and mirrors), and a Lounge area. The restroom looks so instantly comfortable, it reminds me of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, which urged architecture at a human scale, in line with how we most want to sleep, eat, relax, and interact. Odd, that this is so hard to achieve. It need not even cost more (the usual excuse). But too often we get sidetracked by fads, clashes of opinion, self-indulgent showboating, bland easy conformity.
What might Andrew Carnegie have thought of this Design for Peace exhibit? The Cooper Hewitt is housed in his Fifth Avenue mansion, the home where he oversaw so many philanthropic projects at the end of his life. “The man who dies rich dies disgraced,” he said, echoing an impulse he had felt even at thirty-three, when he vowed to stop work in two years and pursue a life of good works. “To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery,” he wrote.
But instead of quitting, Carnegie continued to build the American steel industry, making millions in the process. Three decades later, his company was producing more steel than all of Great Britain. And though he talked a good game, he had been ruthless, pulling his profits from workers by slashing their wages and crushing their unions.
Once Carnegie was pronounced the richest man in the world—with the help of manager Henry Clay Frick and a buyout by J.P. Morgan, two other titans now better known as museums—he did step aside, turning from industry to his dream of world peace. One of the first to call for a league of nations, he built a “palace of peace” that evolved into the World Court. He funded schools and libraries in the hope that people would be sufficiently educated, well-read, moral, and civilized to rely on international law for mediation.
Carnegie’s idealism echoes through this summer’s exhibit. So do the darker contradictions of his life. This is an exhibit that mixes emotions: its dedication, optimism, and creativity refresh you, but the variety and range of the installations reminds you just how much of our world is not at peace, for a gamut of reasons. Design can illustrate that, maybe even amend it, but design cannot erase the causes, any more than Carnegie could quit the cool calculus of his business practices.
“The world should be one puzzle,” says a museum guard at the exhibit entrance, “and each place puts its piece in so it all fits. Resources and food should be shared by everyone.” That is the ultimate design for peace. And it runs against all our worst instincts.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.