Over the last couple of months on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Blog, students from an interdisciplinary graduate-level course on the Triennial taught by the Triennial curatorial team have been blogging their impressions and inspirations of the current exhibition,‘Why Design Now?’ This post by MFA Student William Myers marks the last in this series of articles.

A new project by Marieke Staps highlights the emerging interest among designers to devise inexpensive and ecologically sound solutions to ordinary problems. Soil Lamp signals a new environmental consciousness by focusing on simple, abundant materials like soil and finding new ways to harness them. Staps’s design actually utilizes an old technology easy to replicate at home: an earth battery.


Applications for earth batteries, which harness the energy embodied in heavy metals and use moistened soil as a conductor, were first developed in the 19th Century and included simple clocks.



Staps has also developed an updated version of this application, shown here cheekily growing thyme:



Although these applications rely on metals and not soil to work, they are linked to the growing interest in harnessing natural systems and microorganisms, thousands of which reside in a handful of dirt, to generate clean and renewable energy. This is the goal of a group of researchers at Harvard University who are developing a battery powered by bacteria that they intend to bring to the developing world through their non-profit Lebone. Other designs that show promise and look to humble and unexpected materials include new self-healing Bioconcrete which utilizes bacteria to naturally heal cracks and a fly-powered clock which cleverly, if somewhat morbidly, captures and digests flies, effectively converting their biomass into mechanical energy.

As we progress beyond reliance on fossil fuels we are challenged to rethink our relationships to simple organisms and materials like dirt that we typically avoid, destroy, or ignore. Staps and other designers are beginning to respond to this challenge and are leading the way to a new respect for nature’s many modest, precious gifts. Indeed, the answer to ‘Why Design Now?’ might be in the words of Henry David Thoreau: “in wildness lies the preservation of the world.”

William Myers
School of Visual Arts Design Criticism MFA program

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