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.
A two-story sculptural white wall of Corian, with holes like Swiss cheese, is a prototype for a bullet-resistant "membrane" that would protect a building from exterior threats, including pollutants, while allowing air and water to circulate within the wall. Architect William MacDonald of Kolatan/MacDonald Studio in New York calls the effort "Xtreme architecture" and projects it will be a reality within a decade.
The NOAQ Tube Wall Flood Fighting System wouldn't stop a 20-foot storm surge. But the inflatable red tubes have held back water as high as three feet in Europe. One of the Swedish designers, Sigurd Melin, explains that his intent was to improve on sandbags. The tubes, which take just minutes to inflate and can be linked and put in place without heroic effort, are anchored by the weight of the floodwater on an attached apron.
"Ordinary people could do this," Melin said at a preview. "They wouldn't have to rely on the authorities. This will change the approach to flood protection. This is what we envision."
The Viking Sea Shelter, a life raft for ocean rescue, reduces the challenge of climbing into a bobbing boat by providing submerged steps to clamber up and straps for grabbing hold. It was dreamed up by a graduate student in Denmark.
Some designs combat woe with remarkable flights of fantasy. A shimmering gold polyester cube, six and a half feet on a side, is a jewel of a homeless shelter. Still in prototype stage, the design will fit in a shirt pocket and expand to house one person, with room to spare.
A stuffed red Huggable Atomic Mushroom from a project called Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times offers the opportunity to duck and cuddle. Such designs "allow us to embrace our fears," Antonelli says. So do the decorative surgical masks worn to protect against airborne disease in Japan.
Ralph Borland, a South African designer, created a heart-shaped civil disobedience suit for activists to wear on the street. The inflatable red form would protect the wearer from police batons while broadcasting an amplified heartbeat to the world. A wireless video camera would serve as witness. Sorry, it's only a prototype.
A wearable "motherboard" can alert to a bullet wound on the battlefield or help in postoperative patient care. Spider Boots protect feet from land mines, another of mankind's dubious design contributions.
For everyday urban life, shiny stainless steel obelisks and monoliths put ordinary bollards to shame. So far, they are only prototypes. A bedside table would convert to a club and shield, if needed. A Guardian Angels handbag comes with the shape of a kitchen knife molded prominently on the side. For a theft-deterrent Hidden Wealth project, the Nymphenburg porcelain factory in Germany created a set of white Incognito dinnerware with opulent decoration on the bottom.
Shelter is a big topic. A mammoth, tear-shaped camping tent is suspended at the gallery entrance like a giant cocoon. A family would be cozy inside and, like a sack of food, strung out of the reach of bears. The Treetent was designed for British activists to sleep amid the branches of trees they are trying to save. A Dutch campground now rents the tents.
The exhibition includes three full-size temporary shelters, suitable in post-hurricane or earthquake zones, as well as several colorful variants on homeless shelters and two kinds of tarpaulins.
At the preview, Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, paused before a collapsible paperboard shelter designed by Dan Ferrera of Morris, Conn., and manufactured by Weyerhaeuser. Architecture for Humanity helped to transport the first production run to Grenada this summer. Two Danish designers, with whom Sinclair shared a recent award for humanitarian works, stopped to shake hands. The Danes had supplied two designs to combat malaria, including mosquito netting impregnated with insecticide. The netting had been installed in another disaster shelter, the Paper Log House by Japan's Shigeru Ban, which has been constructed at full size. A third shelter unfolded like an elegant work of origami.
The museum has prepared explanatory brochures, with a graphic scale of hazards on the back. "Contact with venomous snakes and lizards" is considered the least likely occurrence. Riding in a car is the biggest danger of all.
The exhibition includes one automobile, the tiny Nido prototype from Pininfarina of Italy. The designers attempted to make a small car safer in an era of large vehicles. Passengers sit in an egglike capsule, which in a collision slides forward into a crumple zone that diffuses the shock. The designers picked a name that sounds safe: Nido is Italian for nest.
As functional necessities, designs are message-neutral. They work or they don't.
Take razor wire. Whether it is more or less attractive should not affect its functionality. It's a nasty bit of equipment intended to keep intruders at bay. And yet the drive to create art, and to appreciate it, will not be denied. Matthias Megyeri, then a student at the Royal College of Art in London, succeeded in imparting a softer personality to razor wire by making its spikes butterfly-like. He also embedded a "landscape" of glass trees atop a stone wall, where jagged shards are more normally found. To those who do not seek to trespass, the visuals are intriguing, even amusing. As with so many of the objects in the exhibition, the designer has added value.
But the message is unobscured: Proceed at your own risk.
SAFE: Design Takes On Risk runs through Jan. 2 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York. Call 212-708-9400 or visit www.moma.org/exhibitions/2005/safe.