Design Museum tackles climate crisis with language, laundry and the deep-sea

The 2023 Researchers in Residence present projects including a typeface inspired by Celtic words for the landscape, and video-game visuals to recognise deep-sea life.

The Design Museum’s 2022/2023 Design Researchers in residence have unveiled four research projects considering how design can tackle the climate crisis in a free display open until September 2023.

Under the Museum’s Future Observatory programme and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the emerging design researchers are invited to spend a year developing a new research project in response to a given theme.

Looking at the theme ‘Islands’, this year’s cohort – Rhiarna Dhaliwal, Marianna Janowicz, Isabel Lea and James Peplow Powell – variously consider language as a tool to understand climate change, the ecological impact of deep-sea mining, drying laundry as an isolated practice that could be better done communally, and the reintegration of pigeons into city life as an example of interspecies collaboration.

While the theme is Islands, as Future Observatory director Justin McGuirk explains, it is the “island mentality” and behaviour as if “we are detached from the landscapes and species that we depend on”, that the research looks to move beyond.

“All of this year’s Researchers in Residence are exploring our interconnectedness within larger systems, whether it’s landscape, language or laundry,” he says.

“As ever, they are perceptive and original, finding ways into the amorphous climate crisis through the highly particular.”

Rhiarna Dhaliwal’s project, Extracts of the Abyss, looks at deep-sea mining, which is attracting increasing interest due its supply of precious metals and minerals. While these materials are used in the production of green technologies such as wind turbines and electric vehicles, their extraction results in damaging consequences for deep-sea organisms.

Unknown and as yet still mostly unexplored – with only 0.0001% of the deep-sea floor investigated to date – Dhaliwal rejects the colonial concept that the territory is blank and ripe for extraction. She uses video game visuals and data from marine biologists to create engaging depictions of the deep sea and the lifeforms within it.

Marianna Janowicz’s project 1001 Drying Rooms moves much closer to home to consider the ubiquitous domestic experience of drying laundry, as well as how it could be questioned in the fraught context of a London housing stock endemic with mould.

Janowicz has crowdsourced images of the numerous and often inventive methods of drying laundry in individual households, examined council “Condensation Guides” and has also looked to London housing archives for forgotten communal practices – from laundry rooms built into housing blocks and roof-top drying areas that maximise airflow.

Isabel Lea’s research is titled Eroded Expressions. During the project Lea collected terminology from the Celtic languages of the British Isles that express “nuanced understandings” of the topography – as well creating as a new Celtic typeface which seeks to express and make use of this knowledge.

Lea considers the “intimate” connections between land and language; and how words can reflect a particular people’s understanding and interaction with a place over time. Learning these “untranslatable” words and concepts, she argues, can help “protect and sustainably manage our planet’s natural resources”, and provide “key knowledges to speak about climate change”.

The related part of Lea’s project looks instead to the relationship between the meaning of a text and the type employed to write it. Taking Herbet Bayer’s suggestion that “typography is a service art, not a fine art”, Lea writes: “This opens a question: in service of what? How might we better leverage the impact of typography for design research in service of 21st-Century challenges? Here I will explore how typography as both a design process and a design product warrants more space in design discourse”.

Programme curator George Kafka notes that representing graphic design as a research discipline is “something that we could be doing more of at the Future Observatory”.

The fourth project, Dovecote for London, is from James Peplow Powell.  Powell highlights that while the pigeon most commonly provokes revulsion, it is one of the wild animals that humans co-exist most closely with in urban environments. His research looks to the shared histories between humans and pigeons, taking in designed objects and tools, from musical instruments to agricultural infrastructure.

Advocating for interspecies collaboration in the built environment, the project proposes an urban agricultural system based around a new design for a dovecote, or a home for pigeons.

In the exhibition, Powell riffs on the visual language of Transport for London (TfL) with its recognisable roundel and tube map altered for the “Guano Line”, named after the animal excrement (from birds, bats and seals), that works as an effective fertiliser.

The exhibition itself was designed by Msoma Architects, led by Bushra Mohamed, with a focus on preventing waste and utilising sustainable materials; Mohamed brought in 121.Collective to create rammed-earth plinths, made from Tolworth clay that can “be returned to the South West London ground from whence they came”, says Kafka.

It is archipelagic thinking – as explored by cultural thinkers  Edouard Glissant and Epeli Hau’ofa, as curator George Kafka says – that offers these designers and design thinkers opportunities to think productively in the context of climate emergency.

But it is also exemplary of their practice too adds Kafka, and this year’s cohort were testament to that, choosing during their time at the Museum to move from individual desks, spaced-out generously, to sitting at a “mega-desk”, he says, “so they could sit closer, chat and work more collaboratively”.

Exhibition images: Felix Speller.

The display is open from 23 June to 24 September 2023 at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High St, London W8 6AG.

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