NEW YORK — The risk involved in any type of design often winds up gauging its complexity, but when design takes on risk in response to all-too-real physical and psychological threats, the experience is all the more haunting.
Despite sounding like a brainteaser, “Safe: Design Takes on Risk,” a forthcoming exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, addresses everyday fears and frets with more than 300 contemporary objects and prototypes made to fend off the effects of all sorts of natural and man-made disasters.
A ballistic rose brooch, an unmanned aerial vehicle, reflective teeth adhesives and a bulletproof duvet are some of the more James Bond-esque items. Less fanciful are the office evacuation kit, foldable rescue boards, the blizzard survival bag, thermal imaging camera and a 3-in-1 inflatable kite, splint and body warmer. Curator Paola Antonelli actually started working on “Emergency,” the initial concept for this exhibition, months before 9/11, but the terrorist attacks were unnerving.
“The subject was so close to what happened that I couldn’t deal with the exhibition,” she explained. “Because of the human tribulation, we shifted this idea to safety, which has a much wider net. We wanted to give human beings solace and a sense of wonder in everyday life and design.”
The show, which bows Sunday and runs through Jan. 2, comprises six areas: Shelter, Armor, Property, Everyday, Emergency and Awareness. Shelter features items such as inflatable, colorful “Urban Nomad Shelters” by Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley; a “Final Home 44-Pocket Parka” that Japanese fashion designer Kosuke Tsmura created in 1994, and Hill Jephson Robb’s “Cries and Whispers,” an oversized purple felt orb intended to re-create a womb-like structure for children.
Armor has, among other things, John Mulder’s “Mojo Barrier,” a freestanding aluminum crowd-control divider for concertgoers, and Ralph Borland’s “Suited for Subversion,” which essentially looks like the red M&M character, but is in fact a nylon-reinforced padded suit designed to protect protesters from police batons and is equipped with a video camera to act as “a witness” and a speaker that amplifies the wearer’s heartbeat.
Property contains such pieces as Carolien Vlieger’s “Guardian Angel” handbag with an exterior that has the illusion of a three-dimensional knife, and Matthias Megyeri’s “Sweet Dreams Security,” barbed wire decorated with starlike shapes. Everyday shows pieces such as Cindy van den Bremen’s “Capsters Sports Headgear for Muslim Women.”
Items displayed in Awareness seemed to be more digestible. Yves Béhar’s prototype for a Tylenol bottle makes opening the containers easier for adults, but not easy enough that children can do it. “Bracelet of Life,” something widely used by Doctors Without Borders, also is displayed, as well as Anwar Huq’s and Rita Colwell’s “Safe Sari” to be used to filter bacteria from water and reduce the risk of cholera.
Like the sari, Bill Burns’ “Safety Gear for Small Animals” is not what it appears to be. Raccoons, after all, don’t necessarily need reflective vests, nor does a squirrel require a gas mask. Burns’ tiny devices are meant to remind showgoers of deforestation and the ever-expanding human population. A closer look at Ana Mir’s and Emili Padrós’ “Hot Box” shows it is a translucent pedestal that emits light and heat for those who spend extended hours on the street, like prostitutes. “Do Not Resuscitate Necklaces” and the “BananaBunker” needed no written explanations.
Quizzical as many of these objects are, Antonelli said collectively they serve a higher purpose. “Design is truly the highest form of human creativity and having a better understanding of it can enrich everyone’s life.”
Moreover, the objects reflect myriad designs from around the world. “One way to judge design is how it enters the world. You can have an idea, but the truth is when it works.”
She pointed to two “Safe” items, a water purifier designed to filter arsenic from water in Bangladesh and tarps used by the United Nations in emergency situations as examples. The reality is many of the items in SAFE are already being used. Consider the “Self Powered Locator and Identifier for Concealed Equipment” land mine detector at $25, or the teardrop-shaped “Treetent” originally designed to protect conservationists from chain saws.
“The idea behind the show is to display how design has an amazing way in shaping society. When politicians, historians, scientists or anyone starts a revolution, what designers do is make that revolution understandable,” Antonelli said.
If the material is too thought-provoking, there are tokens of comfort including the “Priscila Huggable Atomic Mushroom” from the Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times Project. The project also put together “Vigilhome,” a fully equipped transportable house for “paranoid survivalists” complete with gun-shaped toolboxes, a “Friday the 13th” hockey mask, jumbo-size cereal and two boxes of antianxiety pills.