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Green designs for savvy consumers

IMAGINE a forest of bamboo poles in your living room, hollowed out and drilled to allow for stereo speakers, lighting, even bottles of wine.

The totem-like stalks - elegant yet ruggedly unrefined - are part of a design show commissioned by the Nature Conservancy to show how beautiful, fashionable objects can be produced in ways that don't harm the environment.

Ten designers were chosen to fan out across the globe to places where the conservation group is at work to protect natural resources under siege from pollution, development and overuse. Their assignment was to partner with a community or business in the ecologically sensitive extraction of raw materials and manufacturing of products that could be sold on world markets to provide income to support the local economy.

The result of their efforts - an amazing collection of food, home furnishings, fashion and other products - can be seen in "Design for a Living World," which opened last month at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in Manhattan, New York.

Ezri Tarazi experimented with bamboo stalks from China's Yunnan Province, fashioning the sturdy member of the grass family into hollow cabinets that can be used for almost anything, from a magazine rack to a media center. Maya Lin took a single red maple from the Upper St John River in Maine and turned it into a stunning bench whose surface evokes the forest's rugged terrain.

Isaac Mizrahi worked with treated salmon skin, a byproduct of fish processing plants that has become a trendy and beautiful substitute for traditional leather. His ivory ensemble consists of a silk chiffon slip dress covered in small disks of salmon leather, worn with a long, flowing jacket that trails on the floor like a mermaid's tail.

His raw material came from the rivers and streams of southwest Alaska, where the conservancy is working with native villagers to restore fish habitats and protect the watershed.

Off in the opposite hemisphere, designer Paulina Reyes collaborated with Bolivian carvers who supplied rosewood handles and tiles for a line of Kate Spade handbags woven from cotton and fiber. And noted jewelry designer Ted Muehling was in the island forests of Micronesia, collecting black pearls and ivory nut palm tree seeds from which he fashioned exquisite pieces that echo the shapes of native fish and flowers.

The catalog that accompanies the exhibit is worth noting in its own right. Documentary photographer Ami Vitale was hired to illustrate the "production line," from the harvesting and processing of raw materials to the design and production of the objects, which sometimes took place halfway around the world.

By showing us the people whose economic well-being is entwined with the sale of such merchandise, she reinforces the message of the show - that sophisticated, 21st century consumers can buy and use beautiful, environmentally safe products without spoiling the planet.


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