MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Store shelves these days are packed with products claiming to be eco friendly. But it's hard to know exactly what that means. An exhibition in New York called Design for a Living World tackles that question, with the help of 10 designers.
The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, together with the Nature Conservancy, asked the designers to create surprising products out of renewable materials. Those materials had to come from 10 different areas of the world.
NPR's Margot Adler went to see what they came up with.
MARGOT ADLER: The products on display in Design for a Living World range from jewelry from a nut that feels and looks like ivory to pottery made from using chicle, the substance once used in all chewing gum. Abbott Miller, one of the designers and one of the curators of the exhibit, shows me a gorgeous white dress made of salmon skin.
Mr. ABBOTT MILLER (Designer): Salmon leather has all the properties that people use animal leather for. And in the canning industry, it's a total refuse byproduct.
Mr. ISAAC MIZRAHI (Fashion Designer): I always think of like, salmon skin is something you peel off your food. But in fact, this is a beautiful substance.
ADLER: Isaac Mizrahi is a well-known New York fashion designer who created the white dress out of tiny, salmon leather, sequin-like discs. He's not the kind of person who normally talks about the environment. In fact, he says being green will only work if�
Mr. MIZRAHI: It isn't a step down in terms of like, its glamour factor or something. That, I can't live with. Like if you're weighing like, sort of ecology and glamour, I think they weigh the same to me, you know? I'm sorry to say
ADLER: Israeli furniture designer Ezri Tarazi created coat racks, chairs and entertainment center all from bamboo.
MR. EZRI TARAZI (Furniture Designer): It can grow very fast. It's not like trees that - takes 40 years to grow. It's light. It's very strong. It's renewable.
ADLER: At the entrance to the exhibit is his bamboo chair made from big, circular chunks of bamboo. Tarazi says it's supposed to give you a good massage, but I asked curator Abbott Miller if it was comfortable.
I wonder what it would feel like to sit there.
Mr. MILLER: Like a lot of iconic furniture pieces, this is not comfort first.
ADLER: Other designers were experimenting with new materials. Dutch designer Hella Jongerius went to Mexico to work with chicle, that ingredient in old-time chewing gum. She found it a difficult material. Molds would break; she tried to make a tape with it, it would shrink. She pulled it, stretched it and twisted it and in the end, wasn't sure what to do with it.
Ms. HELLA JONGERIUS (Designer): How often do you find a material which is still a secret? In the end, there's not a defined product. What we did is we show here all the possibilities with what you can do with it. The difficulty is in the strangeness of it.
ADLER: In the end, she used it to embellish pieces of pottery. But its original use might still be the best one - very good.
Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.
ADLER: It's got kind of that minty, kind of�
Mr. MILLER: A green taste.
ADLER: A kind of green taste - it's a green exhibit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ADLER: The best use may still be gum, which you can buy in the museum store. The exhibit runs until January and will then travel.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.