Rock the Boat

We’re all in the same boat. We all want to live in peace. The Cooper Hewitt’s show “Designing Peace” takes this metaphor at face value. A broken-up barge lies stranded in the main corridor of Andrew Carnegie’s former Fifth Avenue mansion. The show espouses a belief in the transformative powers of graphic design, product design, architecture, 70s-style consciousness raising events and workshops. Though the forty works are from around the world, the audience is clearly one mired in North American racial upheaval and gun violence. A deep frustration with the societal status quo is palpable. War zones are no longer in far-off lands, from the Congo to Venezuela, but they are on American streets, in public bathrooms, in cafes, along the border. And most of all, there is a war in people’s minds. 

The hope the curators are so eager to sow, is that if only we could come together there could be change. Solutions range from apps to buildings. We could build a peace museum or create an app for migrants. We could draw images of ourselves or study the history of bathroom laws. We could study spaces of attacks. We could serve food. We could sit on a teeter-totter together. 

But here’s the problem. As enticing as the image of a communal barge may be, it is floating in a vast and open sea. War has complex reasons and peace is often a hard-won compromise, not a straight forward design. Curating as a form of well-intentioned activism has been on the rise for a number of years. Activism, by its very nature, is about attaining change with adaptable tactics. But it is no guarantor for a good exhibition. Such group shows, especially in the context of design exhibitions, often tend to favor the intention behind a work over a rigorous assessment of its merits. Illustrations may draw you in but, ultimately, they cannot replace a fundamental discussion about the origins of war—a discussion for which the progressively shrinking word count of museum labels simply isn’t enough. 

Rather than the remedy, it feels like in exhibitions such as this one, we’re given the placebo. Is the museum no longer enough?



Designing Peace. Building a Better Future Now

The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, New York, NY



curated by Cynthia E. Smith and Caroline O’Connell

exhibition design by Höweler + Yoon Architecture