No Laughing Matter

Is MoMA’s worshipful approach to objects appropriate for security?

The objects in the Museum of Modern Art’s latest design exhibition, Safe: Design Takes On Risk, can be divided into three categories: disasters, annoyances, and kids. (For some the last is a less than ideal combination of the first two.) So we have the wall-mounted Sea Shelter (designed by Nikhil Garde for Designskolen Kolding), a life raft crossed with a tent that provides easier access from the roiling ocean, protects from the elements, and can be oriented toward others trapped in a real-life version of Lost. But across the room there’s the Stokke Xplory baby stroller (by Bjørn Refsum and Hilde Angelfoss Øxseth), a bassinet crossed with an ostrich that is easier to wheel down city sidewalks, shields infants from pollution, and keeps them closer to adult cooing level.

To joke about this seems slightly blasphemous in our heightened security age, but how can one do otherwise when confronted with objects that respond to our worst fears and silliest first-world obsessions side by side by side? Curated by Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini, Safe soft-pedals danger by putting it on a pedestal next to the ironic and the petty, setting up a false equality. One moment you’re checking out Andrew Oliver II’s adorable GIANTmicrobes—stuffed semi-accurate depictions of what ails you (tuberculosis = a googly-eyed green log)—and the next you’re thinking about the green inflatable vinyl of Electroland’s Urban Nomad shelter, a home for the homeless designed to render that undercounted population visible.

The combination saps the show of urgency (its original pre-9/11 title was Emergency, a kind of disaster-movie exclamation point). Safe is a safer shushing title, and the expansion of the exhibition from a focused look at emergency-response equipment to a survey with themed sections on shelter, armor, and awareness makes it puffy and diffuse. It panders to those who don’t want to think about the dark side for very long at a stretch—and to those who might want to do some shopping downstairs (the microbes are for sale). Our “everyday” fears could be larger than wallet pinching and UV rays.

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The usual critique of the MoMA way of doing design shows is that they’re always formal—all about the look of things. So some would say to put emergency objects in the museum at all trivializes them. I don’t think that’s the problem here: in a disaster one would still want a MoMA-worthy tent because the point of Good Design is a high level of function in a legible form. To put these objects in a museum fetishizes them, but it also rightly calls attention to advances in technology and ingenuity in the face of adversity. A good example of this is the Desert Seal, an upward-thrusting tent shaped to vent heat during the day and hold warmth at night under a glittering skin, designed by Architecture and Vision. Now a prototype, it is soon going to be put to the test during the Paris-Dakar Rally.

Not all of the items are so flashy. In one case, next to some kitschy Karim Rashid Band-Aids, there’s a cotton sari. Rebranded by Anwar Huq and Rita Colwell as the Safe Sari, it comes with the suggestion that worn-out saris be reused as water filters in Bangladesh—it won’t get all the impurities, but it is much better than nothing. More pointedly crafty is a hijab knitted of ball chain and fastened with needles of its own making. Made by Gayla Rosenfeld, of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Israel, it sends a subtle political message when displayed next to Israeli skullcap head guards. Overall such messages are rare, however. The thematic organization is interesting intellectually but hard to remember when you’re in the gallery, and it robs items of geographical specificity. It would have been more interesting to see the Capsters Sports Headgear for Muslim Women next to that ball-chain hijab or with some other more traditional examples of Dutch design.

The main exhibition gallery does look great. In the recent past MoMA’s design shows have sometimes set ordinary objects adrift in the white galleries. For this first one in the new building, David Hollely painted the temporary exhibition floor in what looks like brown paper, which travels down the walls and across a set of low podiums. These podiums also hold brown silhouette mannequins that “wear” the personal safety devices, allowing the pieces to better explain themselves: a cell-phone wristlet that could lie limply in a case instead takes on its proper Get Smart aura. Why brown? I’m not so sure: the obvious color theme is safety orange, which runs as a stripe along the bottom of one wall.

The gallery alcove feels like a hallway. As it is, you want to exit the easily crowded space quickly. But in doing so you might miss one of the show’s gems: Martino d’Esposito’s Swiss Earthquake Safety Table. The red steel table with compartments for emergency supplies comes in themed culturally resonant variations: “fondue” (obvious), “nostalgic” (with a cuckoo clock), and “adult only” (with condoms). It made one think about useless 1950s air-raid drills and (more topically) about what objects one might want to rescue from one’s house. Bridging the gap between art and design, it brought a smile without minimizing a sense of loss.

Along with the baby products, it was the other “art” objects in the show that leeched urgency from the enterprise. The most notable of these is the prominent Securitree by Torolab—one set of branches holds cameras and the other screens. It purported to explore how much privacy we are willing to give up for security, but it was ugly and useless. The screens depicted fellow gallerygoers—but wouldn’t we be better off with a few incendiary quotes from Mike Davis?

The art, the Java Jackets, and the lack of political or geographical specificity all point to the omission that really robs the show of real-world chills: architecture. There is only Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House, versions of which were deployed in Turkey in 1999 after the earthquake, which just looks roomy and cute. One wishes for something big and tough—examples of the new fortress buildings, a section through the base of the Freedom Tower, the highest-tech people scanner. What about a mention of MoMA’s own security measures: how did their building change after 9/11? Safe is so international it could be installed in any museum; there’s nothing about it that says “New York.” The closest the show comes to addressing the state of the streets below is Rogers Marvel Architects’ elegant crystalline bronze, concrete, and steel bollards. Striking in context—walling off Wall Street—they would have been more cleverly deployed outside. They are reduced here to trinkets that save nothing and nobody.

In this void I found two designs that might bring New Yorkers a measure of comfort. The first is the Stop Thief! chairs by the Design Against Crime workshop, reworked versions of the ubiquitous Thonet and Arne Jacobsen café chairs with built-in hooks to keep one’s bag close and clean. These fall into the silly category, but the design is awfully smart. The second is Antenna Design’s Help Point Intercom, a wall-mounted kiosk commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that would allow subway riders to contact help at any hour. Sometimes safety is as simple as building a better pay phone since a subway ride can quickly escalate from the everyday to emergency. Trouble can find us anywhere—and Safe should have focused on our real problems.

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