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Designing safety in an anxious age

By Simon Hooper for CNN

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Urban Nomad Shelters are intended to provide warmth, cover and visibility in the event of a crisis.

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(CNN) -- In an age of anxiety and fear, safety and security have perhaps become the ultimate luxury commodities.

Cities such as New York, Madrid and London have already faced the nightmare of terrorist attacks, while the populations of many more have been forced to come to terms with the prospect that they too could become targets.

But fear is not just a manmade phenomenon. From the tsunami in Southeast Asia to the chaos wrought across the southern U.S. by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the past year has seen ample demonstration of the indiscriminate destructive power of nature.

And with concerns over climate change, rising oil prices and the proliferation of nuclear weapons regularly filling the headlines, it's not a good time for worriers.

Not surprisingly, designers have responded to our needs. From gated communities to enhanced car safety systems, companies have realized they can sell us objects and lifestyles by alleviating our fears.

In the first major exhibition since its reopening last year, New York's Museum of Modern Art will next month examine how designers are trying to build safety -- or a perception of safety -- into the world around us.

The exhibition includes more than 300 objects that "address the spectrum of human fears and worries," from emergency shelters for the victims of wars and natural disasters to objects designed to fend off feelings of loneliness or fear of the dark.

The exhibition is arranged around six themes. "Shelter" includes Electroland's "Urban Nomad Shelter" -- a colorful, inflatable structure designed to provide warmth and comfort for refugees and disaster victims as well as being portable and highly visible.

Yet it also features "Cries and Whispers," by Scottish designer Hill Jephson Robb -- a womb-like structure intended to make a child secure.

"Armor" features objects designed to protect the body and mind, such as Ralph Borland's "Suited for Subversion," a civil disobedience suit featuring padding to protect the wearer from police batons and a built-in video camera.

"Property" is concerned with safeguarding our possessions and identities. The "Stop Thief! Ply Chair" by Smart Antitheft Furniture allows customers in a bar or restaurant to attach their belongings securely to the seat.

"Everyday" deals with a vast range of problems from making arsenic-contaminated water drinkable to preventing blisters caused by new shoes.

"Emergency" contains objects for use in exceptional circumstances, such as the French Red Cross' eye-catching first aid bag and the Shmartaf Protection System for Toddlers -- a suit that covers the head, arms and upper torso of a child without restricting visual or tactile contact with an accompanying adult.

Finally, "Awareness" deals with providing information in a way that is clear and understandable in order to minimize risk or panic. It includes the "Bracelet of Life" used by Medicins Sans Frontieres to measure the severity of malnutrition in young children.

When the wristband is wrapped around a child's forearm, corresponding colors from green to red allow the doctor to roughly assess whether the wearer is in any danger.

Exhibition curator Paola Antonelli says the collection focuses on the balance between safety and risk in human behavior.

On the one hand, seeking out safety is instinctive to us all. Yet it is humanity's willingness to take risks that has driven discovery, innovation and progress.

"Beauty and usefulness alone were not enough to justify inclusion in this exhibition," says Antonelli.

"Each object had to transcend the outcome of the equation of its form and function by displaying meaning -- to an individual, to a community, to the world at large -- and last but not least, ingenious beauty."

-- "Safe: Design Takes on Risk" runs at MoMA from Oct. 16 to Jan. 2, 2006.

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