Ingenuity That Protects

MoMA's exhibit on products made with safety in mind shows how risk, coupled with good design, drives innovative solutions to human needs

With the devastation of Hurricane Katrina -- not to mention the memory of 9/11 -- burned in our minds, "Safe: Design Takes On Risk," an exhibition opening Oct. 16 at New York's Museum of Modern Art, seems particularly relevant. Is there any better time to celebrate lifesaving design?

But as the show's curator, Paola Antonelli, says, the subject of design for safety "isn't timely, it's timeless." While emergencies like hurricanes or terrorist attacks thrust the issue into the headlines, the exhibit -- which was in the planning stages before 9/11, shelved immediately, and then reconceived -- shows that safety is a daily need as basic as food. "The instinct for safety has steered human choices throughout history," Antonelli writes.

What the 300-plus disparate objects in the exhibit share is a certain simplicity (see our slide show, "A Safety Showcase"). "They all display a remarkable economy of thought and materials, achieved because of the clarity of their goals," Antonelli notes in an essay written for the accompanying book.


  Function, clarity, and usability are paramount, which isn't to say form is an afterthought. The products in the collection are well-designed, witty, and often beautiful.

The exhibit reflects the range of risks we face, from everyday hazards to emergencies. A Band-Aid Advanced Healing Blister is included, as is a purse that screeches a 138-decibel alarm if it's yanked from its owner.

There's a high-density polyethylene sheet of the sort that the U.N. distributes to refugees, and a Global Village Shelter, a paper house resistant to wind and fire that can be snapped together in 15 minutes and lasts for 12 months.


  The collection also captures the many facets of safety. Shigeru Ban's ingenious paper houses and netting impregnated with insecticide provide shelter from environmental threats. The aerodynamic Giro Atmos bicycle helmet and Stephen Armelino's Bullet-Resistant Mask represent modern-day body armor.

Some, like the Stop Thief! Smart Anti-theft Furniture, protect our property and possessions. Others provide safety from cultural no-no's: An artificial sound machine (from deluxe toilet-maker, Toto) relieves Japanese women from the shame of someone hearing, while the sports-friendly head shrouds allow Muslim women to play soccer or tennis. And of course there are items like the First Aid Kit for the French Red Cross that provide safety during emergencies.

While Antonelli acknowledges the heightened awareness of danger today, she denies that 2005 is especially perilous. "I don't think there has ever been a time in history that was safe," she says. "Death is the other side of life. There are risks of all kinds."


  One might think that such a vast collection of risk-related objects would create in viewers a certain anxiety -- danger is all around us! In fact, risk inspires us. As Antonelli argues, "We crave discovery, and we will take big risks in order to achieve them."

It's risk, coupled with good design, that drives innovative solutions to human needs. So the overwhelming impression of the show is one of ingenuity. Beige Studio's quirky Undercover Table -- inspired by the impulse to dive beneath something when the earth quakes -- has built-in oxygen masks and other emergency items. A locking mechanism is part of the structural framework of Puma's folding bike -- if it's broken, the bike breaks as well.

So while dangers might well lurk around every corner, "Safe" shows how we can face them with well-designed defenses. Many of these tools, garments, and structures could have been -- and no doubt some were -- used to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And they will come to the aid of those that will be touched by emergencies still to come.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.