By Michele Leight
The Museum of Modern Art has showcased cutting
edge design since 1929, and the current show "Safe: Design
Takes On Risk" is no exception, but with far more emphasis
on forces beyond our control than design shows of the past. Originally
titled "Emergency," it was re-named by curator Paola
Antonelli after the events of 9/11. There is an emphasis on the
physical, emotional and psychological need for safety at this
show that goes far beyond the basic response to an emergency.
The INVERSAbrane "wall," illustrated
above, is not only portable, indestructible and fireproof, it
"breathes," allows tubes, ducts and wires to be passed
within it - and it is easy to install and drop dead gorgeous.
This multi-faceted approach to the idea of "safety"
is present in many obects at the show.
Whether it is manifested in the shell of an
insect in nature, or the moated walls of a castle, or fortress,
the desire to protect oneself is as old as civilization itself.
The issue of safety became sharply focused in the United States
after 9/11 - where possibly for the first time since Pearl Harbor
our collective vulnerability was a clear and present reality -
but for many nations conditions such as terrorrism and war have
persisted for decades. In some countries the threat to national
security is compounded by natural disasters like severe
drought and famine, floods and earthquakes, not to mention possibly
the most lethal of all - disease. Wealthy nations may not have
bacteria, microbes and viruses lurking almost everywhere in drinking
water and the air, but the chemicals used to guard against the
possibility of them emerging from them often pose their own health
risks. When it comes to STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) we
all are culpable - it is simply a matter of degree. There are
many items at the show that relate to preventing, treating or
raising awareness for HIV/AIDS, which is an indicator of its prevalence
in all parts of the world today.
By focusing on safety instead of deliberately
arousing fears, this show offers possibilities and that magical
thing called hope - despite our obvious vulnerability. While never
clouding the serious need for protection of all kinds, this clever
approach instills a desire for preparedness - instead of resignation,
or denial - by suggesting there are things we can do to help ourselves
even if we are struck down by disease, a possible disaster, a
terrorist attack, or psychological and physical impairment. Ultimately
the message and the meaning gathered from these objects is that
preparedness empowers us.
Divided into five basic categories of protection
- shelter, armor, property, everyday, emergency and awareness
- that overlap or coincide, "Safe: Design Takes On Risk"
examines how contemporary designers have responded to the ever-increasing
demand for innovative, imaginative and ingenius ways to provide
safety both domestically and locally - or at short notice
on a massive scale following a natural disaster. The instantly
recognizable UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
blue plastic sheeting included in the show appears on TV in every
global disaster. Housed in UN warehouses all over the world, the
sheets can be deployed within 72 hours of an emergency, and offer
immediate relief from the elements.
The 8,500-sq. ft. exhibition space allows ample
viewing room for 300 objects, some of them quite large, like the
wonderful "Paper Log House, Turkey," 1999, designed
by Shigeru Ban (Japanese, b. 1957) that is made entirely of materials
that can be easily found anywhere: the foundation is built from
plastic beer bottle crates (flattened), walls are made of cardboard
tubes, and the pitched roof is constructed of plastic construction
sheet. The first Paper Log houses were built after the 1995 Kobe
earthquake in Japan - a country constantly at risk for earthquakes
- with a correspondingly high level of innovative solutions by
Japanese designers for housing that can be speedily assembled
for immediate disaster relief. All the materials are lightweight
and will not harm those living within them in the event of collapse
during another quake.
"Global Village Shelter," (2001),
designed by Daniel Ferrara (American, b. 1941) and Mia Ferrara
(American, b 1977) of Ferrara Design Inc.(USA), is a wind- and
fire-resistant, sturdy paper home that snaps together in 15 minutes
and lasts 12 months. It gained popularity when it was used during
reconstruction of Grenada following Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Its
easy-to-follow, illustrated directions make it universally usable,
the shelters are packed flat, cost $300 and can be shipped anywhere
in the world. They provide more security than a tent since they
can be locked from the inside. They can also be linked together
to form larger structures like clinics nd nursery schools. It
is manufactured by Global Village Shelters, LLC, in partnership
with Weyerhaeuser, USA (2002). It was lent for the show by Global
Village Shelters, LLC.
Some of the newer inventions in the show -
like the Boezels series of toys and objects - are now recognized
as emotional, mental and psychological safety nets that were not
focused on in the past simply because there was not enough education,
knowledge or awareness about their positive effects. Sensory stimuli
help to calm the emotions and the mind, and induce a sense of
security. The Boezels are a series of furry, fuzzy, human, or
animal-like toys designed by Twan Verdonk, (Dutch, b. 1979) of
Neo Human Toys, to help the mentally challenged regain a sense
of self. Appealing to at least one of the five senses, they can
be hugged or wrapped around the body.
A hefty dose of humor cuts through the seriousness
at this show. In the "armor" category, "Suited
For Subversion" is every activist's "must have."
Designed by Ralph Borland, (South African, b. 1974) it is the
ultimate civil disobedience outfit guaranteed to make even the
cop whose job it is to arrest you burst out laughing. Made of
padded, nylon-reinforced PVC that will not feel the impact of
a police baton, the suit comes with a small speaker that amplifies
the heartbeat of the wearer - enough to freak anyone out - and
also a wireless video camera attached over the head that films
all the goings on for future evidence. Levity of this kind would
please "Q" and James Bond -and it releases the fear
and tension that wells up when we realize that the situation they
are designed for is menacing.
The threat of chemical or biological attack
has been present in Israel for some time, and the ingenious gas
masks by Bezalel Research & Developmentall, Bezalel Academy
of Art and Design, Jerusalem, allow flexibility to children especially,
while blowers supply clean air through tubes attached to oxygen
tanks. These lightweight masks are unconstricting, allow children
to use their arms - and parents to hug them - while at the same
time taking care of business.
Two "everyday" safety
devices address the need for pure drinking water - or any water
at all - which is a real concern in many countries because of
drought, chemical contamination or bacteria. Stephen Augustin's
(German, b. 1967) "Watercone" (1999) offers a simple
and inexpensive way to make contaminated water drinkable. The
"Watercone" is able to float on water, or rest securely
on moist ground; when the sun shines on it, salt water evaporates
beneath the cone and condenses on the inside surface. Water droplets
gather in a drain rail, allowing the user to either pour the water
out, or drink it right away. This condensation process automatically
purifies the water in a single-stage distillation process.
The "Shapna Arsenic Removal
Filter" (2001) was invented by Fakrul Islam, (Bangladesh,
b. 1939) for International Development Enterprises to remove arsenic
from drinking water in India. The low-cost filter that can be
found in just about any Indian home, contains a mixture of crushed
brick and ferrous sulphate, and supplies about 32 liters of drinking
water per day.
While most of us would rather
curl up to a good movie on TV and never think about being mugged,
gnawed on by a shark, or having some awful biological or gaseous
substance hurled at us by a terrorist, contemporary designers
are set to the task of doing just that. Designers today also pressure
themselves to make their serious inventions beautiful, "cool,"
colorful looking - and increasingly humorous. "Neptunic C
Shark Suit," (2005) designed by Jerimiah Sullivan (American,
b. 1954) and Sang Sukcharoun (Cambodian, b. 1960) is a totally
flexible steel mesh that is crafted from stainless steel, nylon,
and polycarbonate - just the thing to send a shark searching for
Moving from the protection
of the body to the home, barbed wire fencing in the hands of Matthias
Megyeri, (German, Born 1973), humorously entitled "Mr. Smish
& Madame Buttly Razor Wire" from the Sweet Dreams Security
Series turns this usually utilitarian deterrent to intruders into
a delicate trellis resembling starry wire gift wrap on a large
scale - but don't dare go near it. Its very delicacy renders it
more lethal, clearly laying down the boundary between the public
and private domain.
Similarly, Megyeri's "Landscape
Glass Objects" Prototype 2003 are beautiful replacements
for the glass shards that often occupy the top of walls around
a property, not just in emerging nations but increasingly in affluent
ones. These witty but deadly glass teddy bears, sculptural forms
and other feel-good objects take a swipe at the "exaggerated
niceness" that is de rigeur in these politically correct
days, even in situations that are essentially about affording
zero tolerance protection to the homeowner. A student of the Royal
College of Art in London, Megyeri's work focuses on security in
the domestic environment.
Few could fail to notice the
emergence of "designer" barricades outside places of
worship, important sites and famous landmark buildings in New
York City. These are designed to withstand the impact of a truck,
van, or car driven by a suicide bomber, or any predator on two,
or four wheels with negative intentions. "Monolith, Tripart
and Obelisk Security Bollards" (Prototypes, 2004), are made
of stainless steel, designed by Frederick Arlen Reeder (American,
b. 1947), manufactured by SOWORKS Site Objects for Perimeter Force
Protection, 2004, USA. They are the ultimate in sculptural deterrance
and stand as works of art on their own.
Not displayed at the show -
and hidden from view of pedestrians - are sidewalks that implode
if a car bomb should suddenly explode. The car is immediately
"swallowed up" beneath the street and harm to the abutting
building or innocent passersby is drastically reduced. There is
comfort to be gained from this kind of design, and the show is
jammed with other amazing new inventions made of kevlar and Gortex,
bullet proof masks, gas masks with air blowers to reduce the sense
of claustrophobia, finger rings that become brass knuckles if
a person is attacked, bedside tables that become baseball bats
if a burglar suddenly enters, handbags that scream if a thief
attempts to snatch them - and tables whose undersides store fondue
sets if an earthquake should set in and those sheltering under
it are bored and need entertainment.
The predicament of the homeless
in New York City - and anywhere in the world - preys on the conscience.
It would be a real comfort to know - as we sit in our favorite
arm chair reading our favorite book or watching TV on a blustery
night - that the homeless were housed in an individual, brightly
colored, transparent "Urban Nomad," designed by Cameron
McNall (American, b. 1956) and Damon Seeley (American, b. 1976)
of Electroland, USA. These inflatable, highly portable and inexpensive
structures are guaranteed to protect the homeless from cold, rain
and hard sidewalks even on the worst nights. Long lines of "Urban
Nomads" might pose problems on city sidewalks, but perhaps
there could be designated areas of the city that allowed these
attractive inflatable homes - where the homeless also become visible
and therefore feel a part of the community.
The designers found that invisibility
was the greatest enemy of the homeless when they researched the
project. Frankly, an "Urban Nomad" is a lot snappier
than the corrugated paper, newspaper and blanket mounds lurking
in doorways and on sidewalks - and far more dignified. The "Urban
Nomad" has my vote for most wonderful design at the show
and I have no objection to them all over my city. Perhaps the
reader is getting some idea of the kind of thoughts and emotions
this show arouses.
There are some very serious
exhibits at this show, including "demining" gear that
highlights just how dangerous some jobs are - and how wonderful
it is that equipment like this is now available to reduce harm
to those who must do them. Med-Eng Systems CHP100 Conical Hand
Protector (2001) provides shields for the the upper limbs of those
searching for mines; the Spiderboot Antipersonnel Mine Foot Protection
System shields a mine-sweeper's feet from flying fragments and
explosions; and the Humanitarian Demining Handheld Standoff Mine
Detection System has ground penetrating radar. The designs are
so cool looking the viewer almost forgets how lethal the circumstances
of their use really are.
Awareness is one of the most
effective ways of protecting oneself, and the show has 56 items
devoted to this. Being able to read the instructions on medications
canisters is much easier with the ClearRX designed by Deborah
Adler and Klaus Rosberg (both American) which has a flat surface
so the instructions do not go irritatingly around the circumference
of the bottle. Carrying a portable defibrillator with recorded
instructions provides an extra level of protection in situations
where others might need to know what to do should your heart suddenly
stop. In all situations - whether expected, or in a medical or
security emergency - the information is crystal clear, easy to
understand - and therefore more likely to be effective. Communication
design is one of the most important ways to promote "preparedness"
for what might happen. Not knowing is far riskier than
There are situations that can
be prevented, even though it often seems we forget the plight
of those who need even the most fundamental kind of protection
- nutritious food and liquids. Doctors Without Borders use many
different devices to help save lives: one of the simplest is The
Middle Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) or "Bracelet of Life"
( 1994) which helps to identify the severity of manutrition of
children 6 months to five years old. The band is wrapped around
the child's upper left arm, and the circumference of the arm corresponds
to a color, ranging from green (normal) to orange (moderate malnutrition)
to red (serious malnutrition and risk of death). This information
helps the doctor choose the approptriate nutrients for the child.
AIDS medications are not that
easy to administer, so Doctors Without Borders have committed
to helping with the AIDS crisis in Africa with a "One Day-At-A-Time
Weekly Medication Organizer Tray" (1990) designed by Terry
Noble (American, b. 1945), which teaches patients when to take
their meds to ensure their effectiveness. The planner contains
seven snap out pill reminders for each day of the week. Each daily
compartment is sub-divided into four smaller ones to ensure the
entire AIDS cocktail is taken. Even a person who is not educated
can grasp this concept.
There are personal items that
denote the need to protect a person's physical condition: blood
type, disease present (AIDS) or a heart or diabetes condition.
Many items at the show address the need to protecting property
or possessions against theft - while the more abstract but very
real threat of Identity Theft is handled with hair and blood cards
that contain DNA that leave no doubt about a person's true identity.
Similarly, items like fashionable identity necklaces and name
bracelets and charms are becoming popular because they stake a
claim on the self - and offer a rebuttal to the anonymity inherent
in so many aspects of modern life.
As far as risk goes, prostitution
is probably one of the most risky jobs of the 21st century with
diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis C exploding across the globe.
Those who travel in developing nations know that prostitution
in these countries is relegated to filthy back alleys, truck stops,
seamy brothels and fields, offering prostitutes none of the perks
of the "pretty woman" Hollywood-ized professional. This
show does not avoid any subject - truly commendable - and there
are several items, (including a condom applicator) that attempt
to keep the prostitute physically safe, or at least safer
because condoms are not infallible: a chair that lights up, called
the "Hot Box" and makes her more visible while seated,
and a Kleenex, disposable pocket sheet, (prototype 2001) that
sanitizes just about anything, or can be used over a surface that
may contain bacteria and other viruses, both designed by Ana Mir
(Spanish, b. 1969) for emiliana design studio.
The names of many of the objects
at "Safe: Design Takes On Risk" are indicators of their
function and at the same time witty and humorous. Here are some
of the imaginative titles given to their creations by designers
who seem to be as skilled at language as they are at design:
"Static Dissipative Finger
Cot," "Ballistic Rose Brooch," "Bullet Proof
Quilted Duvet," "Safe Being by Killing Zones shirt,"
"Peter Pin, R. Bunnit and Didoo Railings," "Ballistic
Assault Alarm Cell Phone Charm," "Polygloo baby carrier,"
and "Bazooka Joe" give some idea of the language skills
of those whose chief skills are supposedly non-verbal - or are
Double meanings and wit abound,
and the constant play on words denote the importance of their
meaning in contemporary art and design - in any situation, not
just for emergencies. As we are constantly barraged with stimuli
of all kinds in an increasingly technological and visual world
that competes of our attention, it is the clear, concise messages
that make it through the thicket of verbiage. Important contemporary
artists like Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha use words in their work
- but sparely, ironically and with singular thrust. This approach
has influenced a new crop of artists and designers who express
themselves with extraordinary clarity - as this show proves only
It is comforting to know that
despite all the advances of science and technology, when in comes
to emergencies and safety - as well as art - it is often a few
simple words that do the trick: as in "HELP POINT" Intercom
for the New York City Subway (2004) designed by Masamichi Udagawa
and Sigi Moeslinger of Antenna Design, MTA New York City Transit
Team (USA, established 1953). These intercoms will be installed
as communication points in situations of danger or emergency,
and they are vandal-proof.
Whether the objects of safety
in the MoMA show are intended for deadly serious disasters, as
mental and emotional safety nets, or for everyday, cuts, bruises,
loud noises and health conditions like diabetes, it never hurts
that they are beautiful. Paola Antonelli insists that beauty and
great design alone did not warrant inclusion in the show - the
work had to mean something as well.
It is the meaning of so many
of the innovations that linger - like the demining equipment that
preserves precious limbs and the "Global Village" paper
houses that cost $300, can be assembled in 15 minutes and last
for a year until homes are rebuilt after a disaster; the "Urban
Nomad" shelters for the homeless that offer visibility, inclusion
and dignity; the tiny arm bracelets for malnourished children
to save them from dying; and the ingenius, bright orange "Final
Home 44 Pocket Parka" that comes equipped with basic survival
equipment, and can be stuffed with newspaper for added insulation.
If the wearer grows bored with it, the parka may be donated to
NGOs (non-government organizations) that will distribute them
to those who need them.
In the end, awareness of the
existence of these wondeful inventions reduces fear of the unknown
- innocence cannot last so long that we remain unprepared, but
it is also possible to have fun with these life enhancing and
I will end with images on a
video screen installed near the inflated "Basic House"
made of dazzling gold polyester, where the Spanish designer Martin
Ruiz de Azua cavorts like a child on the beach with his "house,"
clambering inside it, lying on it, wrapping it around himself
and chasing it along the waves as the wind catches it, like some
golden prize from the myths and legends of antiquity.
To guard against losing it,
this magical 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 "house" of gold deflates
to a small shiny packet that attaches to a T shirt equipped with
instructions about how to use it.
The 216-page catalog "Safe:
Design Takes On Risk," that accompanies the show includes
an introductory essay by Paola Antonelli and 330 color illustrations.
It costs $29.95 and is available at the MoMA stores and online
at www.momastore.org. The catalog is distributed in the
United States and Canada by D.A.P., (Distributed Art Publishers),
and outside the United States by Thames and Hudson, London.
The exhibition is supported
by Willis Group Holdings Ltd., and the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.http://www.momastore.org/