For years the design discipline’s ongoing narrative has been about designing a better world, forging awareness and addressing the political and social systems that divide and alienate the “other”. That story, however, felt a wee bit phony last week. Design should be doing better.

Even at first glance something was amiss. Avenues lining the more cultural exhibiting districts are dotted with minimal white spaces at one extreme, and opulent urban palaces at the other. Exhibitors and the visiting public behave flawlessly, straight-jacketed by strict social codes. The doormen are almost always black. At one of the most lauded venues the guy offering directions to the bathroom is black and the guy asking for 50 cents to use the bathroom is black. They are the only black people on the premises.

It struck me dumb that this sort of basic social issue wasn’t considered by curators and exhibitors in advance. It reaches a point when it is just no longer ok.

Because the relevance of exhibition content starts to wane when one has to pole-vault over the impenetrable barriers between reality and the curated environment. How can anything be taken seriously? Who is working on these barriers and how is design connecting to the harsh realities of urban life?

Design Academy Eindhoven’s show “Not For Sale” (curated by Joseph Grima and Tamar Shafrir) offered discreet interventions in everyday commercial environments in a humble neighbourhood. It was a risky undertaking and reactions from anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to join a private tour was one of disappointment.

It’s a challenge in any design week fanfare to sustain people’s attention so serving up a difficult-to-find, dispersed series of small interventions into existing commercial establishments sounds like a crazy and bound-to-fail idea.

But also brilliant, brave and achingly authentic. Visitors who found the projects – all modest disturbances into reality - beheld the true value and power of a design that acknowledges its context by respectfully embracing local relevance and building on what already exists.

Carmen, for example, a toothless local identity lined her small-goods store with graduate Lauren Leerdam’s stools creating a cozy opportunity for social interaction. Next door Razma Hassani’s layered and interchangeable shoe-sole system hung on the wall of a tiny laundromat. “This place is always open,” said Tamar Shafrir, “but we never found the proprietor so we just went ahead and hung the project up anyway.” The proprietor eventually surfaced seemingly unfazed.

Razma Hassani. Photography by Ronald Smits

A little further along Via Crespi in an old, half-abandoned market an aging butcher chopped animal carcasses into edible portions. On large metal hooks usually reserved for dead animals hung Billie van Katwijk’s work – an experiment with the properties and potential of cow stomachs. She tanned and manipulated the organs into a series of accessories that hung, like limp cadavers above actual chunks of raw meat. The inspiration, process and results of her work with what is usually deemed waste became transparent and relevant to all.

And in one of the more poignant visuals of Milan Design Week Alice Bleton erected a serene, perhaps even lonely living-pod. It was difficult to discern whether the pod was a lux retreat - a moment of solitude free of chaos, or a survival shelter - a moment of security free of danger. Possibly both, the mysterious shell was a mesmerizing vision all aglow in the grit and crumbling dust of an abandoned roof.

Alice Bleton. Photography by Luca Chiaudano

Across town in Israeli designer Erez Nevi Pana’s show a hand written text quoting Nietzche slapped visitors hard. “Man is the cruelest animal … and when he invented his hell, behold, that was his heaven upon earth.”

Pana’s research-based practice reveals how his concern for animal mistreatment affected first his diet, then his clothes and ultimately his relationship to the profession. “I came to question how I design,” he said on his mission see how far a total dependence on plants and minerals can go in the production of objects.

Now he is busy experimenting with how far he can take salt, fungi, soil and silk from abandoned cocoons. His concern is that the public remains oblivious of the deceptive use of animal-derived products in design.

The project with the most encompassing relevance for urban dwellers was Jon Stam’s (Commonplace Studio) exploration of time. In collaboration with Jesse Howard and Tim Knapen this work poetically grappled with that unifying urban dilemma and our biggest guilt – lack of time.

The show presented objects related to time in a series of cabinets of curiosity that were each cleverly connected to a machine that celebrates rather than laments the fragmented and disordered way we absorb and offer information. The machine asked a few questions connected to the presented work, the interlocutor answers and the machine provides a summary of the liaison by drawing out words or images onto a notebook that visitors could take home with them – a nod to the common place notebook used in the Middle Ages to compile knowledge.

Visitors were absorbed. Stam told me he even felt a bit guilty taking up so much of people’s time. “In Milan it is all such a race to find what is new, what is the best, what will the future look like,” he said, “so it was nice to see people spending nine minutes connecting to what is only in the immediate.”

School of Time by Commonplace Studio for Z33 and Istanbul Biennial

This work was commissioned as a research project by Z33 – House of Contemporary Art in Belgium and will be part of a larger presentation on the theme of time in Istanbul Biennial’s A School of Schools (curated by Jan Boelen).

Where all these projects exceled was in their genuine commitment to forging connections between values, design, designer and user.   They all explored the potential of this discipline to embrace qualities more in tune with the changing shape and intangible complexities of contemporary society.