MoMA’s Safety Check

What does it mean to be safe? Does it mean wearing a Kevlar vest that can stop bullets? Or having a waterproof tarp to live under and a machine to locate unexploded land mines? Does safety mean Homeland Security, barbed wire, and identity-theft protection? Or is it simply a teddy bear to hug when you feel lonely?

These are some of the questions raised by SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, an exhibit opening October 16 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Curated by Paola Antonelli, who organized MoMA’s Humble Masterpieces (2004) and Workspheres (2001) exhibits, and assembled with assistance from Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini, SAFE presents over 300 products and prototypes that address the physical, psychological, and ideological aspects of safety. Included objects range from baby strollers and nutritional information to Camouflage Cream and gas masks. A catalog featuring essays by Antonelli, Phil Patton, Marie O’Mahony, and Susan Yelavich, among others, accompanies the exhibit, which runs through January 2, 2006.

I recently spoke with Antonelli about SAFE’s impetus, the show’s content, and why focusing on safety is more fruitful than concentrating on fear. Excerpts from the interview follow.

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You proposed SAFE before 9/11.

Yes. It was proposed in March of 2001. It was originally entitled Emergency and focused on emergency response and medical equipment. It was approved and I started working on it. Then came September 11th. For about five days after I didn’t think about the show, until somebody asked me about it. It was like a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Two weeks after September 11th, New York Times writer Julie Iovine called. She was working on an article about the design world’s reaction to 9/11 and asked if I wanted to talk about the show. I didn’t. She said she was going to mention it anyway. Please, I said, say that it’s been in the works for a long time, because I didn’t want to give the wrong impression, right?

The public response to the piece was amazingly positive. I got a lot of letters saying the show would be a great idea, including one from a fireman in Utah who sent me information on a new way to attach the hose to the hydrant.

Around the same time, I started working on the 2003 Aspen Design conference, which I was chairing with Gregg Pasquarelli from SHOP and [textile and product designer] Hella Jongerius. I remember it must have been February 2002, and we were all focused on themes of fear. One day I thought, forget fear, let’s talk about safety, because then you can talk about so much more. Like these toys, Boezels, meant for children with psychological impairments. These children have no fear, but these toys make them feel more comfortable with themselves and therefore safer. Safety is a much broader, more encompassing, and more humane topic than fear is.

Was there a particular reason the exhibit is happening now?

There were many reasons. One was MoMA’s move back from Queens: this would be the first major design show since the reopening. [The museum had temporarily relocated to Queens while the addition to its 53rd Street home was being built]. And scheduling: We wanted to have it in fall, because that’s the best time for a show.

You’ve mentioned cultural elements that came into play when researching concepts of safety. Can you tell me more about the differences you found?

It’s all about culture, as contemporary design’s closest scholarly ally is anthropology. So for example, in Israel safety means rubber-sealed shelters to protect from blasts and chemicals. In Bangladesh it means finding drinkable water. In South Africa it means spreading awareness about AIDS and beating the government’s efforts to tell people that HIV drugs have no effect. In other parts of Africa it means providing moveable hospitals that don’t look like hospitals, so others don’t identify the women that go to them as HIV-positive or disease carriers. Here in the United States it means understanding what safety is for you and what it is for companies.

How do politics affect these designs?

Design and politics are intertwined, but often seem far from each other because the aesthetics of design neutralize the political discussion that you can have about it. But when you talk about safety, politics goes splat in the middle of the discussion. For instance, homeless shelters are all about politics; and with refugees, they are displaced persons, and that involves the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. When you get to safety and bulletproofing, that immediately becomes Homeland Security or activism. When you get to property, well, it’s the kind of politics you have at home.

What are your favorite objects in the exhibit?

PA: There are many, because I selected them with a lot of passion. I feel strongly about the UN tarp because that’s the beginning of every refugee shelter. The visual home is wonderful. I am in love with the Boezels: they’re such beautiful things. And the activist suit is so great.

Then there are the pieces Emiliana Design Studio created for prostitutes, like the Kleensex disposable Tyvek sheets that you can put on any type of surface to sanitize it, and the lighted Hot Box, which prostitutes can sit on so that they are very visible but at the same time safe.

Oh, and there’s the work by Design Against Crime, which is a workshop at the Central Saint Martins School of Design in London. They’ve done a whole series of carry-safe bags that went into production. One is a groin bag that is hard for someone to dip into without you noticing, and another bag screams when it is detached violently from the body. Then there’s Matthias Megyeri—his work is also on the cover of the catalog. He established a whole company devoted to security, called Sweet Dreams Security.

I’m also very passionate about deactivating landmines, and there is this particular de-mining kit that is extremely inexpensive and can be deployed all over the world for very little money.

What would you like people to get out of the show?

There are very different levels of intensity and types of fear in the show, but they are presented without suggestive images. I really would like people to use their own emotions. People are going to walk through and see the UN tarp that they have seen so many times on TV, but they’re going to see it in reality there. I would like it to be personal.

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