Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Disturbing questions bubble to the surface at the Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition "SAFE: Design Takes On Risk."
Is barbed wire a metaphor for protection or aggression?
Do microbes make you feel afraid or safe? Would you be comfortable watching your baby cuddle a pastel plush-toy germ?
Is a steel mesh bodysuit fashion-forward, or as scary as the sharks it was designed to withstand?
Humans may be less vulnerable because they know how to design personal armor. But as a species, we can be frightening: We expend energy devising a poison gas attack, and more energy creating ways for innocent infants to survive it.
The exhibition, which opened Sunday, takes no position on weapons of mass destruction. It presents more than 300 problem-solvers and talismans as commentaries on daily trauma. Danger may come from natural disaster, disease, road rage, criminal intent, war, paranoia, dust or a very hot cup of coffee.
"There is nothing closer to the big bang of design, to its prime reason to exist, than objects that deal with self-preservation," curator Paula Antonelli writes in the catalogue.
Emergency preparedness has worked its way to the front burner of American life. But in person, Antonelli bristles at the inevitable suggestion that safety equipment is more topical now because of terrorism, Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake that struck Pakistan.
"There is an underlying sense of fear in society," she responds. "It's not timed, it's timeless."
MoMA began considering an exhibition of emergency gear in the spring of 2001. The terror attacks on the World Trade Center brought the project to a halt. For the next four years, while the design galleries were closed during the museum's expansion, Antonelli and an assistant, Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini, let the project incubate to excellent effect. A broader definition emerged after Antonelli organized the 2003 Aspen Design Conference around the topic of risk, in partnership with Dutch designer Hella Jongerius and New Yorker Gregg Pasquarelli. The final premise became: Risk inspires creation.
The fear factor is pervasive, but designers come across as professional optimists. Products and prototypes, which date mostly from the 1990s, are notable for thoughtful engineering and economy of materials. Most of the inventions also happen to be beautiful, which is an important component of MoMA's show.