Born out of Necessity, Architecture and Design Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Among the most common and enduring definitions of design is “problem solving.” A problem arises, the designer analyses it and distils it into goals, and then she creates a roadmap to a solution, working with the means at her disposal. These include the budget, the materials and techniques she can afford and master (for an object like a chair, a lamp, or a bicycle, for instance), or the code and software she favours (for a digital product, such as an interface or an interactive map). She must also consider the requirements of distribution and marketing, if the product is meant for wide dissemination. If she is good, this process, simple and linear, will result in an elegant, functional, economical, and meaningful solution, the splendid outcome of an inspired syllogism. Design is often not linear, however, and sometimes, rather than focusing on solving existing or forthcoming problems, designers – informed by current technological and social developments – imagine possible future scenarios and infer from them urgent issues that may eventually need to be tackled; in other words, they design problems for which we all one day might need solutions.

Born out of Necessity features objects of design from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art that are solutions to problems, some of them real, concrete, and urgent, and others speculative, tied to possible future scenarios, their urgency removed but no less intense in the designers’ minds. Some highlight emergencies at home or at sea; others are made to be used efficiently in medical crises or to be deployed in response to natural disasters. While some are staples of everyday life in the present moment, such as Band-Aids, earplugs, and coffee cup lids, others address possible problems of the future: a planet-wide food shortage caused by overpopulation, for instance, which leads to an inventive redesign of the human gastrointestinal system; the ethics of lab-grown meat; or the psychological effects of organ transplantation from animals.

In some cases, challenges specific to people with disabilities (the problems of a few) have led to products that improve everybody’s life (solutions for all); in others, solutions to pressing needs in developing countries are extrapolated successfully to the environments of cities in wealthier nations. Design that is first problem making and then problem solving often veers dramatically from the visual and functional catalogue of the modern tradition. Its predictive and narrative power comes alive in objects that address present and future cultural developments – such as the integration of environmental responsibility into everyday behaviours or the marriage of ancient religious beliefs with up-to-date media and habits – and that aim to anticipate and prevent future technological and ecological quagmires. Goals and means come together in the design process, a remarkable synthesis whose ambition is to distil an object that is much more – in significance, functionality, innovation, and elegance -than the sum of its parts.

Born out of Necessity, 02/03/2012 – 28,01/2013, Architecture and Design Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019.


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1. Andreas Vogler and Arturo Vittori of Architecture and Vision.
Desert Seal (2004)Polyurethane-coated polyester fiber and silver-coated Mylar.
Prototype by Aero Sekur, Italy.
Gift of Architecture and Vision, 2006.
Image by Architecture and Vision.
2. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby of Dunne & Raby.
Grass Processor, Tree Processor/Digester, and Augmented Digestive System from Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers. (2009) Fiberglass.
Gift of The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
Image by Jason Evans and courtesy of Dunne & Raby.
3. Andrew Burroughs, Dickon Isaacs, Stacy Benjamin, Dick Grant, John Grimley, Jerry O’Leary, Anton Schubert, Amy Schwartz, Paul South, and Eric Sugalski of IDEO and David Kravitz, Douglas Schein, and John Brassil of Organ Recovery Systems. LifePort Kidney Transporter. 1998.
Polyurethane, polystyrene, polycarbonate, and polyester. Manufactured by Organ Recovery Systems, USA.
Gift of the manufacturer, 2006.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
4. Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, TEMPT1, and Theo Watson.
EyeWriter (2009) openFrameworks and custom software, eyeglasses, PlayStation Eye camera, IR pass filter, IR LEDs, battery clip, resistor, zip ties, and metal wire.
Image by the EyeWriter Team.
Architecture & Design Purchase Fund, 2011.