Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Curator Ellen Lupton
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Curator Ellen Lupton

There?s a tiny car that turns in a perfect circle, and "stands up" on two wheels for parking. Solar roofing tiles to collect energy for home needs. A grain thresher that?s made of bicycle parts. These are some of the creations at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's triennial show of the best designs from around the world, now on display in New York until early 2011.

The show is organized around human needs, including energy, mobility, communications and health. Curator Ellen Lupton notes that good design is not a luxury, but a way to improve almost every aspect of life. She says the aim of this year?s show is to demonstrate how design can answer some of the biggest questions humanity faces. And so for the first time, it includes designers from outside the United States. "We live in a very globalized world, and the problems that are facing humanity are global problems," Lupton said at the show?s opening, "And so we're looking at design produced and created and disseminated all over the world."

Many of the designs, which come from 42 different countries, address needs in the developing world. A major problem in poorer countries is a lack of artificial light for making use of the hours after dark. Lamps powered by the sun's energy, like the solar SunShade by Dutch designer Lianne van Genugten, are one answer. "During the day it opens up and collects solar power, and also provides shade underneath the umbrella, and at night it closes down and light comes out," said Lupton. The show also features the Soil Lamp, by another Dutch designer, Marieke Staps, that operates on the electrolytic energy contained in damp soil enclosed in copper and zinc cells. Only a splash of water now and then is needed to "recharge" the soil.

Durable, inexpensive building materials that can be made locally are another need throughout the world. A curving roof on display was built according to an ancient masonry technique that uses thin but very strong tiles to span large spaces, with no permanent frame. "The structure that you see here was created with bricks manufactured in North Carolina from recycled materials, including processed sewage," Lupton said. She said the tiles are as durable and weather-resistant as any permanent building material. South Africa's Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center, featured in the show, was built with this technique, creating structures that Lupton says are as thin as eggshells, relative to their span.

In many places, women spend hours every day walking to collect pure water, or burn scarce wood for boiling water to make it safe. The Solvatten solar water purifier, invented by Swedish designer Petra Wadström, saves time and money, and reduces deforestation. Users pour unpurified water in on one side of the box-like container, and let it sit in the sun for a few hours. The clean water is then poured out through another opening. "A product like that really has the opportunity to change the way somebody lives, because now they have time to spend doing other things: making money, becoming educated, taking care of their families," Lupton noted.

Pearl millet, a grain, is a staple food for people in many African countries. A thresher on display at the show, made with bicycle parts, could save women in those countries the hours they now spend every day pounding pearl millet by hand to remove the husks. Now being field-tested in Mali, the Mahangu Thresher was designed by a U.S. team from Hampshire College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There?s also a neonatal incubator on display, created by another U.S.-based nonprofit group, Design That Matters. Its NeoNurture incubator is made entirely from motorcycle and car parts, so that it can be easily repaired by local mechanics in rural areas far from modern hospitals.

The show?s signature design will also be especially useful in some of the world's poorest countries: inexpensive eyeglasses with lenses that users themselves can adjust to the degree of correction needed. British physicist Joshua Silver created the self-adjustable eyeglasses called AdSpecs to help the estimated half a billion people in developing countries who lack access or money for prescription glasses. They correct for both near-sightedness and far-sightedness, though not for astigmatism.

Not all the designs in the show are intended primarily for undeveloped areas. Renewable sources of energy are needed everywhere. High-altitude kites with tiny turbines on their edges collect wind energy and send it down the line to be stored and used on earth. The M10 Kite-power system was invented by Damon Vander Lind, an American, and Becker Van Niekerk, a South African. Another design, aimed at people in richer countries, is the Power Aware Cord, created by Anton Gustafsson and Magnus Gyllenswärd at the Interactive Institute in Sweden. It shows the amount of energy that an appliance is drawing through light that glows and pulsates.

There?s even a biodegradable casket aimed at the developed world. Most coffins now are made using large amounts of scarce and non-biodegradable materials, including metal and plastics. When burned in cremation, those caskets also release toxins into the air. The Return to Sender Artisan Eco-Casket, by Greg Holdsworth of New Zealand, resembles an overturned canoe. Manufactured out of simple plywood, it will allow the final act of a life to be one of good design, with little impact on the environment.