It seems like global conflicts are ceaseless and, as they continuously multiply, it becomes more and more difficult to envision a global future that is free of them. With their latest exhibition, Designing Peace, Cooper Hewitt defines peace as not simply the absence of war but “a dynamic process that can be built, nurtured and sustained” — in short, a condition that can be designed. Designing Peace documents exactly this process: through a series of projects resulting from all forms of creative partnership, the exhibition offers a path toward a peaceful future.
Designing Peace includes 40 projects of radically different scales, from Lesvos Solidarity and Humade Crafts’ Safe Passage Bags, created by recently arrived refugees to Lesbos from the recycled lifejackets they wore on their treacherous sea journeys, to the Hood Design Studio-created International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. While we tend to think that peace can only result from large-scale, inter-governmental collaboration, Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition demonstrates how partnerships of all sizes between architects, artists, designers and activists can also contribute to creating a conflict-free future.
It is not just a coincidence that designers are positioned to contribute to this collective goal. The exhibition’s curators explain that design and peace-building are both the result of similar processes and require a congruent skillset to achieve — both use “communication, iteration and an understanding of context to envision a world that is accepting of multiple voices and cultures.”
How seemingly small design interventions can have reverberations that go beyond their immediate locales to have global effects is a running theme throughout the exhibition. Philippe Starck’s Ideas Box demonstrates just this. Designed to be deployed to underserved and underfunded areas, the portable library and pop-up multimedia centre can easily be shipped, is self-sufficiently powered, and can be set up in just 20 minutes. Already distributed across six continents, in areas of hardship, including refugee camps and remote Indigenous communities, the Ideas Box offers access to customized and tailored information and educational resources that promote community healing.
In parallel, Designing Peace presents design projects that distil paths to resolving international conflicts in decidedly local projects. For example, the Conflict Kitchen located in Pittsburgh rotates serving cuisines from countries that are in active conflict with the United States. The brainchild of Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski and in collaboration with Brett Yasko and Robert Sayre, the takeout restaurant uses food and a tandem complementary programming to bring people together, encouraging exchange and education to challenge biases held based on the presentation of cultures as “other” by governing bodies.
In positioning design projects that address peacebuilding in different ways, through different media, and at different scales side-by-side, visitors to Designing Peace at the Cooper Hewitt are not only asked to consider the role of creatives in building a better future but to accept a definition of peace that includes not just inter-governmental understanding but individual agency as well.