How Design Students See Gadgets Grappling With the Future of Urban Pollution

Breathing walls, noise-to-music converters, and more.

Air filtering plants. Air filtering walls. Air filters hanging from the ceiling, and pinned on backpack straps.

If the 20 semi-finalists in the 2013 Electrolux Design Lab competition are any guide, the next generation of designers sees air pollution as a primary challenge of 21st century urban life.

The annual contest, sponsored by Swedish appliance manufacturer Electrolux, elicits thousands of entries from design students around the world. The winner receives a 5,000 prize and a paid internship at Electrolux.

This year, the theme is "Inspired Urban Living," and students were given the choice of three approaches to the challenge of urban life (filtered through the priorities of a company that makes a lot of refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and air conditions): "social cooking," "effortless cleaning," and "natural air."

Keeping in mind that this is a design competition — more art fair than science fair — here are some of this year's most intriguing projects:

Ohita
Jorge Alberto Treviño Blanco
Mexico

Perhaps more fashion statement than environmental activism, this pint-sized air purifier fits on your person and expands and contracts like a tiny, mechanical pair of lungs. It can be color-coordinated with your outfit, too.

Air Drop
Jillian Tackaberry
USA

The Air Drop is a flower pot-cum-ventilator designed to hold Tillandsias, or air plants. Air plants are particularly durable, requiring only a brief soak in water once in a while. They're also known for their unique ability to filter dirty air. With a solar-powered fan sending stale apartment air up through the plant's leaves, the air drop is a garden, a sculpture and an air purifier all in one.

Music Yue
Jiawei Huang
China

Looks very soothing. Courtesy Jiawei Huang/Electrolux.

Inspired by the form of a tuning fork, the Music Yue turns urban noise pollution into music. (Danish headphone company AIAIAI did a similar thing in London last year.) 

Breathing wall
Jeabyun Yeon
South Korea

Courtesy Jeabyun Yeon/Electrolux.

Modeled after the gills of a fish, this all-in-one design converts bare walls into luminous air treatment devices. The Breathing Wall can dictate your home's humidity, temperature, and even fragrance, if that's what you're into. You can save settings — the exact humidity and temperature of a particularly happy evening, for instance — to recreate later, when you're feeling down.

Cellular Pillow
Qing Ji
China

No place is closer to your respiratory health than your pillow, so why not put your air-purifying technology there? That's Qing Ji's idea, which uses imitation plant technology to cleanse the air around your head while you sleep. No word on whether it's comfortable or not.

You can watch a brief introduction to the 20 semi-finalists below, or check out all the projects on the competition's website.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.