The Life-Affirming Promise of Regenerative Design

“Funny how plastic never seems to go away, except for when you want it to stay,” Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), wrote in a personal essay about a beloved black vinyl skirt she bought as a teen in 1980 (included in Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss and Why They Matter, Hat and Beard Press, 2022). Over the subsequent two decades, as she kept wearing the skirt, its design seemed to adapt to unfurling fashion cycles — until the fabric deteriorated into a sticky, melty mess. As she put it: “It finally died of natural causes.” Though the skirt ceased to exist in a functional form, its vinyl material won’t actually decompose. It will likely persist indefinitely on our planet, along with billions of tons of other existing plastics.

Antonelli’s new exhibition at MoMA, Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design, explores the enduring impact and regenerative possibilities of design mediums. Focusing on innovative and experimental fabrication methods, the featured works investigate the full lifespan, from inception to decay and back again, of the materials used to create the spaces, garments, and objects that populate our daily lives. “The environmental crisis is front and center in everybody’s mind,” Antonelli said in a statement. “Design can be an agent of positive change and play a crucial part in restoring the fragile ties between humans and the rest of nature.”

The presentation brings together about 80 works, primarily from the museum’s permanent collection, by around 40 designers. The pieces illustrate the ways design materials — traditional and high-tech, organic and manmade, reworked and reimagined — can exist in tandem with natural cycles and organisms, support ecosystems, and take cues from ancestral practices.

The title on the wall embodies the idea of creative reuse, a theme that shows up throughout the exhibition, with dotted lettering made from debris (sawdust, tiny screws, washers). The first piece, a poignant 12-hour film by Maarten Baas titled “Sweeper’s Clock” (2009), shows two people, recorded in real-time, wielding long-handled janitorial brooms. The figures continuously push garbage into the shapes of clock hands, moving ever clockwise, underscoring the time-sensitive urgency of addressing pollution and environmental destruction. The works that follow are loosely organized into sections displaying garments, vessels, electronic waste, architectural materials, and home furnishings. 

At its best, the exhibition amazes and inspires, inviting viewers to ponder the possibilities of wide-ranging and forward-looking materials. Cutting-edge technologies mingle with fresh spins on organic materials and visions for biodiverse, community-based practices. A honeycomb vase made by 40,000 bees across a manmade scaffolding demonstrates a cross-species collaboration. A translucent carafe and matching set of cups made from microalgae sourced from a network of Mediterranean communities and sugar-based biopolymers offer an eco-conscious alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Mycelium that is mixed with agricultural waste (namely, corn stalks) and bound together through fungal growth forms lightweight, low-cost, energy-efficient building materials, or “bio-bricks.” Husks from colorful heirloom varieties of Mexican corn turn into “Totomoxtle,” gorgeous veneers for tessellating decorative surfaces. An assortment of 3D-printed objects (garments, glassware, ceramic vessels) employ low-waste, highly customizable techniques. Mesmerizing process videos, explanatory texts, and well-rounded audio tour stops further bring these objects to life and break down complex scientific processes into digestible takeaways. 

Some particularly intriguing objects, however, are labeled only with very basic details, and lack illuminating contextual information, which felt like a missed opportunity. For example, the label for a small, footed speaker and a pair of curvy tabletop lamps (which are prominently featured in the show’s marketing materials) lists this eyebrow-raising set of materials: “cow dung, PVA wood glue, oil-based coating.” But you won’t learn by what alchemy the excrement mutated into casings for these sources of sound and light. This is not addressed through text, a process video, or in an audio segment. Same for the “Zoa biofabricated leather and cotton” black and white T-shirt and the elegant, ebony-colored dinnerware set that’s made from the “charcoal of food waste and urushi lacquer.”

Despite these gaps, Life Cycles assembles a hopeful and thought-provoking vision for the future. The melding of regenerative materials and creative processes points to a world where humans and the rest of the natural world not only co-exist, but thrive in beautiful, ingenious, and interconnected ways.

Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 7. The exhibit was organized by Senior Curator Paola Antonelli and Curatorial Assistant Maya Ellerkmann.

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