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Safe: Design Takes On Risk

The Museum of Modern Art

State of the Art Security

October 21, 2005 - January 2, 2006

Invertible building membrane prototype

INVERSAbrane, Invertible Building Membrane, Prototype, 2005, vacuum-formed Dupont Corian, designed by Kolatan/Mac Donald Studio (USA), Prototype by Evans and Paul, Unlimited Corporation, USA (2005), Lent by Kolatan/Mac Donald Studio (USA) and DuPont Surfaces

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.

Paper Log House by Shigeru Ban

Paper Log House-Turkey, 1999 by Shigeru Ban, Shigeru Ban Architects. Paper Tubes, Polypropylene Beer Crates, Sandbags, Plywood and PVC. Manufactured by Shigeru Ban Architects and International Volunteers (1999-2000). Paper House in the exhibition manufactured by Shigeru Ban Architects, Japan, Dean Maltz Architect, USA, and the Students and Staff of he Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and The School of Art of Cooper Union, USA (2005)

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.

NIDO Model 2004 by Pininfarina; Camcopter S-100 unmanned aerial vehicle

NIDO Model, 2004, by Pininfarina Company Design, Italy. Camcopter S-100 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, 2004, by Gerhard Heufler, Carbon-fiber and Titanium, Manufactured by Scheibel Elektronische Geraete GmbH, Austria (2005)

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.

Neptune C sharksuit, Mr. Smish & Madame Buttly razor wire, Landscape glass objects

"Neptunic C Sharksuit," by Jeremiah Sullivan and Sang Sukcharoun (2005), Stainless Steel, Nylon, and Polycarbonate, Manufactured by Neptunic Shark Suits, Steel Mesh Manufactured by Azon Corporation, USA (2005); "Heart to Heart Chain," Iron, & "Mr. Smish & Madame Buttly Razor Wire," Steel, from The Sweet Dreams Security series by Matthias Megyeri (Prototupe 2004, Prototype 2003), "Landscape Glass Objects," designed by Matthias Megyeri. Lent by Matthias Megyeri

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 a toothpick.

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.

Security bollard prototypes by Frederik Arlen Reeder

Monolith, Tripart and Obelisk Security Bollard Prototypes, 2004, by Frederik Arlen Reeder, Stainless Steel, Prototype by SO WORKS Site Objects for Perimeter Force Protection, USA, (2004), Modeling, fabrication and finishing: Charles Jones, Paul Meneses, Matthew Hincman, and Bradford Holland, Lent by SO WORKS

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.

"Urban Nomad" by McNall and Seeley

"Urban Nomad" inflatable structures for homeless designed by Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley of Electroland, USA

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 being informed.

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 they?

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 too well.

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 preserving necessities.

"Basic House" by Martin Ruiz de Azua

"Basic House" by Martin Ruiz de Azua, Polyester, Prototype, 1999, Lent by Martin Azua

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 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.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at and at



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