If you thought advances in technology had made traditional craftsmanship obsolete, David Wiseman might surprise you. The 25-year-old RISD graduate from Pasadena, Calif.—a featured designer in the current National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York—devotes himself to his work with the rapt, low-tech perfectionism of a Renaissance artisan.

Wiseman captured the attention of the design world in 2005 when he transformed the ceiling of a client's Los Angeles dining room into a thicket of intertwining branches, with cherry blossoms bursting from their tips. For that project, Wiseman hand-cut more than 500 porcelain blossoms and fabricated almost 100 branches from plaster and fiberglass, then climbed up and down a ladder in the client's house to attach them. He worked alone most of the time, by choice, and the project took him nearly a year to finish.

Triennial Wall. owers by Ken Smith Landscape Architect.
Andrew Garn Triennial Wall. owers by Ken Smith Landscape Architect.

“I didn't have an exact plan for how the branches would grow,” Wiseman says. “Because I didn't, it allowed me to improvise on the spot. I would go up on a ladder and put a 5-inch segment of a branch up, then come down and be able to look at it in context, and make changes accordingly.” His process, Wiseman adds, is “very visceral.”

Wiseman joins 86 other designers in the Triennial, titled Design Life Now, which is on view through July 29. The exhibits span every facet of contemporary American design, from robotics and computer programs to fashion, furniture, landscape architecture, and lighting design. “For me, the most important thing about the Triennial is the extremes of inclusion,” says Matilda McQuaid, one of the four curators of this year's show. “You have everything from the high-tech to the handcrafted.”

With Wiseman at one end of that spectrum, SHoP, a New York City architecture firm, could be said to represent the other. SHoP has pioneered digital architecture in recent years, using technology to streamline the design and fabrication of buildings. Its Camera Obscura in Greenport, N.Y.—a 350-square-foot, single-room structure that, by means of an optical lens, captures images of the surrounding area—began as a kit of 750 custom parts, many of them laser-cut using digital files from a 3-D computer model.

High tech and low tech: They would seem to be polar opposites. Yet it's a false dichotomy, McQuaid says. “There's so much craftsmanship that goes into these high-tech items, like the robotics,” she observes. “It's very pronounced how much time and effort it takes to produce some of these prototypes. You can talk about them as polar opposites, but at the same time, they're very much related to one another.”

An awareness of craftsmanship—whether a given designer uses cutting-edge software or simply her hands and a pair of crochet needles—is the clearest theme to emerge from this year's Triennial. But it wasn't imposed from on high, the curators are quick to point out.

“We really wanted to start with the objects and designers themselves,” says McQuaid. “Subconsciously, you have themes in your head, and they begin to formulate more concretely as you go through the designers. But really, it wasn't until the final selection had been made that we then went back and began to look at the designers as a large group.”

Barbara J. Bloemink, Brooke Hodge, Ellen Lupton, Matilda McQuaid
Ben Baker Barbara J. Bloemink, Brooke Hodge, Ellen Lupton, Matilda McQuaid

Guest curator Brooke Hodge, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, describes the selection process: “All four of us did a lot of research and came up with our own lists,” she says. “We all got together on a couple of occasions and made presentations with images. Then we voted in a blind vote. Anything that got four out of four votes was in, and most of the things that got three out of four were in, too.”

What sets this Triennial apart from past shows, according to Hodge, is the extent of collaboration among the curators. Beginning with their first meeting in early 2004, they spent hours together, sifting through more than 200 objects and designers—culled from magazines, books, museum exhibitions, and events like the Milan Furniture Fair—and winnowing them to the final 87.

“Going to see the show, it does feel like there's a connection between the pieces,” Hodge says. “We all thought it worked really well for us to spend a lot of time with each other.”

Architecture makes a stronger showing this time around than in either 2003 or 2000 (the year the National Design Triennial was initiated). Hodge says the curators consciously tried to represent more architectural design. But Barbara Bloemink, the former curatorial director of Cooper-Hewitt, has a different take: “There didn't seem to be much innovation in some areas, and more in others.” And from 2004 to 2006, she says, “Architecture and landscape architecture … really came to the fore.”

In the pages that follow, highlights from the show attest to the depth, range, and ambition of American design over three change-driven years.