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Review: Feeling 'SAFE' at MoMA

Curator Paola Antonelli on the beauty of design amid fears

By Porter Anderson

KOL/MAC architects have formulated the INVERSAbrane invertible building membrane, a "SAFE" centerpiece at the Museum of Modern Art.



Here are some of the exhibitions on view and planned at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Through January 2, 2006
  • SAFE: Design Takes on Risk

    Through January 9, 2006
  • Focus: Elizabeth Murray
  • Drawing from the Modern, '75-2005

    Through January 23, 2006
  • Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon

    Through July 3, 2006
  • Take Two: World and Views -- Contemporary Art from the Collection

    February 19-May 8, 2006
  • Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of a Soul

    Art Museums
    Arts (general)
    Emergency Planning

    NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition "SAFE: Design Takes on Risk" may seem an unlikely haven for those who find the 110-foot drop below the building's sixth-floor catwalk unnerving.

    In this first major design show since Yoshio Taniguchi renovated MoMA's facility, warm-wood floors and clear white lighting embrace the goals driving curator Paola Antonelli. Her exhibition is a cocoon filled with expressions of concern, care and empathy.

    From emergency housing with doors -- "because people feel safer with a door they can close" -- to the Boezels Collection's huggable toys for troubled kids, Antonelli has searched out the emotional impetus for what we perceive as safety.

    She starts with what scares us. If it's the terrors of the open water, she gives us the Sea Shelter from Denmark, a covered raft with a keel that stabilizes it as people pull themselves aboard. It orients itself amid waves and wind. High and dry as we are, we begin to appreciate planning, material and implementation: design.

    The exhibits at "SAFE" recognize current events. Could the INVERSAbrane invertible building membrane, a large L-shaped chunk of which rises at the heart of Antonelli's exhibition, help distribute the concussion of a bomb blast in the same way it baffles wind?

    A section titled Shelter includes Ferrara Design's Global Village collapsible house. The treated-paper structure can be dropped from a plane folded. It's assembled in 15 minutes using only photo directions (no language barrier) and it can last 12 months. If only the Kashmiri quake victims had this sturdy little hut. Near it is the famous UNHCR plastic sheeting, used since 1985.

    In another section, Emergency, you're confronted with Israeli designer Ezri Tarazi's 2003 prototype Bazooka Joe turtleneck: In a gas attack, the wearer can cover his nose and mouth with the collar, which is fitted with filters and valves.

    Bezalel Research's Bardas Protection Systems are geared to their intended users' needs -- kids get a kind of gas hood that allows them freedom to play, while giving Orthodox Jews and Muslims room for their beards.

    Some entries are remarkably innovative. A three-in-one kite, splint and body warmer from designers Bernard William Hanning and Vernon Pascoe can protect a climber from cold, stabilize an injured limb or be flown as a gleaming kite to attract rescuers.

    The Design Against Crime consortium offers prototypes of café chairs designed to secure bags so that purse-snatchers can't rob chatting patrons.

    MoMA visitors are swarming daily around the Nido, Pininfarina's concept car that encases driver and passenger in an egg-like protective cell surrounded by a special internal "crumple zone" meant to withstand crashes of up to 45 mph.

    "Where can we buy this?" gallery goers ask Paola Antonelli.

    "You can't buy it, it's not made yet," she tells them -- and points them to the DaimlerChrysler Smart car, just put on display last week in the museum's permanent collection Design Galleries.

    SAFE-ty first

    Ironically, the events of September 11, 2001, slowed rather than sped this exhibition's development at MoMA.

    Its research was started months before the attacks with a focus on designing for emergency. Progress on the show then was put on the back burner for a time, an "emotional decision," according to Antonelli.

    As the project regained momentum, she notes in the catalog for the exhibition, the point was made by security specialist Bruce Schneier that safety and security are distinct concepts.

    Safety, in Schneier's understanding, is "being secure against random faults, against Murphy's Law. ... Security is much harder in that you are dealing with a malicious and intelligent adversary creating failures at the most inopportune times."

    But if good design can make living with threat more bearable, one museum patron asks, aren't we in danger of accommodating rather than resisting enemies?

    Antonelli turns to designer James McAdam's prototype of a Light Blanket, studded with colored lights that twinkle and gleam. "Would you tell a child," she asks, "not to accommodate a fear of the dark? Or would you give that child this blanket?"

    This is the sort of dilemma Antonelli relishes. In her December 2001 "Workspheres" exhibition, she asserted that no matter how grand a design might be waiting in the future, each workplace cubicle dweller should be able to organize career space her- or himself.

    Cameron McNall's Urban Nomad inflatable homeless shelter prototypes glow with color in this illustration.

    And in "SAFE," she happily ricochets between the dire and the whimsical. In Canadian Bill Burns' "Safety Gear for Small Animals" display, a gas mask for an otter or work gloves for a prairie dog can make us ponder what contaminants may be doing to those animals' habitats.

    The entry to the exhibition takes you past one of Dre Wapenaar's intriguing Treetents. Designed in 1998 for England's Road Alert Group for its protests against highways' being built through woodland, the teardrop structures are made to "hug" trees as housing for activists.

    And after inspecting Vizrt's futuristic cityscape that pictures emergency response efforts and a black bullet-resistant Ballistic Rose Brooch from Tobias Wong, when you step back onto West 53rd, you might encounter a jogger who likes to dash past MoMA on many evenings.

    Mid-20s, in a tank top and Nike shorts, he stops to a tie running shoe. Its exterior is silvery, shiny, a foil-flashing alert to drivers. That runner feels that those reflective shoes help him take on the risk of training for the marathon in Manhattan.

    So you haven't quite left Antonelli's show up on MoMA's sixth floor, after all. It stays with you. It paces that runner, and lopes along with our headlines. It keeps up. Art doesn't always do that. But when it does, it carries its own subtle comfort, a sense that good design is aware of us. And responding.

    And that helps make us all feel "SAFE."

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