In times of political unrest and rising populism, it's essential to support and inspire each other and to challenge the future together. Fittingly, By The People: Designing A Better America, on view at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, is a unique exhibition that mines the American cultural landscape for inventive, resourceful, and unconventional design ideas that address issues faced by underrepresented and underfunded communities.
The museum's curatorial team searched the country for examples of ordinary citizens empowering communities through design, "traveling to shrinking post-industrial cities, sprawling metro regions, struggling rural towns, areas impacted by natural and manmade disasters, and places of persistent poverty," according to a press release. The show presents 60 design projects which focus not merely on design in communities, but designing communities, exemplifying ways design can aid resistance in a time where women, people of color, indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups are vulnerable.
Installation view of "By the People: Designing a Better America." Photo: Moorhead & Moorhead/Mikiko Kikuyama
Designs span a range of categories and applications, confronting issues like affordable housing, disaster relief, public transport, crime, unemployment, and more. Building Dignity "explores design strategies for domestic violence emergency housing. Thoughtful design dignifies survivors by meeting their needs for self-determination, security, and connection… creating welcoming, accessible environments that help to empower survivors and their children." Fresh Moves, an answer for low-income areas suffering from lack of access to fresh, affordable produce, comes in the form of city buses repurposed as mobile grocery stores, delivering fruits and vegetables to urban neighborhoods.
There is an effort to promote positive connections between law enforcement and citizens in high-crime neighborhoods by "reimagining police stations as neighborhood hubs, with gardens and gyms, meeting rooms and free Wi-Fi." Set against the dark reality of the Standing Rock conflict, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp is an optimistic illumination of native people prospering through "collaborating with and empowering Lakota youth and families… creating our own pathway out of poverty by building local skill and leadership capacity, exercising our sovereignty, and creating a space that empowers our community to realize its fullest potential."
Installation view of "By the People: Designing a Better America." Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
In line with the focus on sustainable and socially responsible design, the exhibition itself is thoughtfully executed. Exhibition designer Hitesh Singhal, born and trained in India before completing his education at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), tells Creators, "We used humble methods of design application to celebrate compelling ideas, rather than the shiny objects we usually see in museums. 'Hacking,' also known as jugaad in India, is a widely adopted way to solve any issue. We 'hacked' the Cooper Hewitt's open source font to create a stencil used to paint compelling infographics directly onto wall panels… we essentially designed a traveling show that recycles itself."
In an era of divisive tactics and alternative facts, it is crucial to pay attention to small victories, local narratives, and the hope and ambition which runs deep in our diverse communities. We must build power through educating, empowering, and engaging. "In our hyper-distracted society," Singhal says, "news is often consumed in fragments, and the truth is only partially understood. Artists and designers can rise to this new way of consumption, by reframing stories that give a whole picture and embed them in all forms of visual language, be it a sculpture or a meme shared online. If one media is curbed and controlled, there can be 10 other alternative ways to communicate and experience the same story."
Making space for marginalized communities in institutions like museums, where they have historically been misrepresented or left out of the narrative entirely, is necessary for the triumph of a multicultural America. By The People represents these communities with dignity, and resists efforts to dehumanize those of a different socioeconomic or ethnic background. "We don't have to wait for government to fix everything. All of us can be problem-solvers," Singhal reminds us. The exhibition is a testament to advancement by design through innovation and self-determination, representing the people as true agents of change at a time when it feels our power is being stripped away.
Catch By The People at the Cooper Hewitt through February 26.