Massoud Hassani. Mine Kafon wind-powered deminer. 2011. Bamboo and biodegradable plastics, 87 × 87 × 87" (221 × 221 × 221 cm). Gift of the Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art

Safety is a basic human need. It is the most urgent after food, water, shelter, warmth, and sex, as American psychologist Abraham Maslow explained in his quintessential “Hierarchy of Needs,” developed in 1943 at the height of WWII. Design helps us be—and feel—safe.

In 2004, I organized the exhibition SAFE: Design Takes on Risk at MoMA. As our director, Glenn Lowry, wrote in the foreword to the catalogue, the exhibition sought to highlight “the ways in which designers can deftly address the wide range of our worries—both real and imagined—by integrating advanced technologies and innovative solutions within objects that are sensitive to users’ habits and capabilities.” The exhibition had been in the works since 2000. At that time it was titled Emergency, and dealt with design solutions in reaction to crises, both natural and human-made. After 9/11, still in shock and seeing so many of the objects from the checklist (stretchers, medical equipment, triage centers) in the streets of New York, I decided to shelve it. On the shelf, the idea matured and blossomed into SAFE, a half-full instead of a half-empty glass, an exhibition about proactive instead of reactive design.

Below is a selection of objects from MoMA’s design collection, some from SAFE and others from subsequent exhibitions, often described with words culled and adapted from the exhibitions’ catalogues (from texts by Anna Burckhardt, Patricia Juncosa, Stephanie Kramer, Michelle Millar Fisher, and Ala Tannir). They are all “created to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful situations, convey information, promote awareness, and provide a sense of comfort and security,” as I wrote in my introduction essay to SAFE. These are “objects [that] offer not only efficiency and reliability, but also grace under pressure.”

Twan Verdonck, Neo Human Toys. Hingeling (music bird), from the Boezels collection (prototype). 2001

Twan Verdonck, Neo Human Toys. Hingeling (music bird), from the Boezels collection (prototype). 2001

Twan Verdonck and Neo Human Toys. Hingeling (music bird) from the Boezels collection. 2001

The Boezels are a series of 17 fuzzy human- or animal-like toys designed according to the principles of the snoezelen therapy, and targeted to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Snoezelen is a contraction of the Dutch words snuffelen, meaning “to seek out” or “explore,” and doezelen, “to relax.” The therapy was developed in the 1970s by Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul, and is based on sensory stimulation in a controlled ambience in order to help the learning process and reduce anxiety. Each Boezel has unique characteristics that appeal to at least one of the senses. Hingeling, a musical bird that the designer created with his father, sings when a worm is pulled out of its mouth.

Ralph Borland. Suited for Subversion (prototype). 2002

Ralph Borland. Suited for Subversion (prototype). 2002

Ralph Borland. Suited for Subversion. 2002

Suited for Subversion is a civil-disobedience suit for street protesters. A shield from police batons, the protective wear is also a way to create spectacle, attract people’s attention, and encourage society to echo the protesters’ sentiments. A wireless video camera mounted over the head acts like a witness and records police action. The system transmits the signal directly to a control station, obviating the need for a tape that might be destroyed. A speaker in the center of the chest amplifies and projects the wearer’s heartbeat. In a group action, a collective heartbeat will increase as tension and excitement mount, like a natural soundtrack arousing the crowd. At the same time, the heartbeat exposes the vulnerability of the individual.

Paul Kirps. protekt, universal protection set, A5 Card. 2002–03

Paul Kirps. protekt, universal protection set, A5 Card. 2002–03

Paul Kirps. protekt, universal protection set. 2002–03

A particularly on-the-nose project for our current viral anxieties, protekt is the name of an imaginary brand of repurposed consumerism debris. After an appliance has been unpacked, the packaging (often toxic polystyrene foam) is usually thrown away. However, with intentional design, packaging can be adapted to protect parts of the body. Real objects with imaginary functions—and with names like Turbomatik 1600, Duotronic 440, and Konsecuent 64—might now be wishful thinking in a world in which the things we fear the most (in this case, wrappers that might carry bacteria) can instead be protective shields.

Hill Jephson Robb. Cries and Whispers. 2003

Hill Jephson Robb. Cries and Whispers. 2003

Hill Jephson Robb. Cries and Whispers. 2003

After his young sister died of cancer, leaving behind a seven-month-old daughter, Hill Jephson Robb set out to restore the feeling of security that the child felt with her mother. Cries and Whispers is a womb, a space of security and comfort, both physical and emotional, for a child whose mother is absent. The entrance, like the entrance to a nest, enlarges in size as the child grows, becoming a safe place to which a child can always return. The womb is created by wrapping, wetting, and rolling felt, in itself a very comforting and cathartic process for the designer. Robb’s work appeals to the belief that design must contribute to survival and focus on healing both the individual and the world.

Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Michael Anastassiades. Priscila Huggable Atomic Mushroom from the Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times project (prototype). 2004

Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Michael Anastassiades. Priscila Huggable Atomic Mushroom from the Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times project (prototype). 2004

Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Michael Anastassiades. Priscila Huggable Atomic Mushroom. 2004

A personal favorite that I wish was keeping me company at home, Priscila is a soft, stuffed atomic mushroom, to cuddle away our fears of nuclear annihilation. The Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times series explored the psychological connections between objects and humans. Taking therapy as a cultural phenomenon and using design ironically as a form of escapism, the series also included Hideaway Furniture, designed in collaboration with Michael Anastassiades and shown in the SAFE exhibition. (If the plush toy approach works for you, you can cuddle your own virus anxieties goodbye but please note: this particular object is not in MoMA’s collection!)

Dunne & Raby (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby). Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers. 2004

Dunne & Raby (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby). Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers. 2004

Dunne & Raby (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby). Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers. 2009

Critical design redefines contemporary design practices by interweaving elements of art, science, technology, and philosophy. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, two of its first champions, engage with object-based speculative scenarios that delineate possible future consequences from our choices of today. In Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers, they imagine a future—not so far off—in which food shortages inspire a series of prostheses that enable human beings to digest algae, roots, and leaves.

Massoud Hassani. Mine Kafon wind-powered deminer. 2011

Massoud Hassani. Mine Kafon wind-powered deminer. 2011

Massoud Hassani. Mine Kafon wind-powered deminer. 2011

In Qasaba, Afghanistan, Hassani’s hometown, leftover mines—remnants of conflicts—often injure or kill civilians. Inspired by the wind-powered racing toys that Hassani and others from his hometown built as children, Mine Kafon is designed to roll across the ground and detonate landmines in the process. At about 155 pounds (or around 70 kilograms), the deminer is approximately the weight of an average human adult. It is constructed modularly: when it detonates a mine, only a few of its 175 bamboo arms are blown off, allowing it to complete multiple detonations before needing repairs. When repairs do become necessary, a GPS chip embedded in the device’s core guides the deminer along a safe path out of the field. Since first developing the deminer during his studies at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Hassani has continued to field-test iterations of the Mine Kafon with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Defense and has released a set of freely accessible instructions for creating your own from discarded materials like tires or oil canisters.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Lazarus. 2016

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Lazarus. 2016

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Lazarus. 2016

Lazarus is a reinterpretation of the ancient death mask. Conceived as an “air urn” to contain a dying person’s last breath, it is made using a process called Data-driven Material Modeling (DdMM) to 3-D print a high-resolution object with patterns created out of external data. The surface area of the mask is modeled on the face of a person near death, and its design is informed by the physical flow and distribution of air across that surface—data that can either be gathered from the wearer or generated by a computer. As we collectively mourn the loss of so many, a speculative project like Lazarus allows us to reflect on the fragility of life and the momentous mystery of death.

Zhijun Wang. Sneaker Mask - Yeezy Boost 350 V2. 2016

Zhijun Wang. Sneaker Mask - Yeezy Boost 350 V2. 2016

Zhijun Wang. Sneaker Mask - Yeezy Boost 350 V2. 2016

The surgical mask was first adopted by the public during the flu pandemic of 1918. By the late 1960s, disposable masks made of fiberglass layers had been introduced. This take on the mask was created by Chinese designer Zhijun Wang using repurposed expensive sneakers like the Yeezy—a 2015 collaboration between Kanye West and Adidas—to provide a practical barrier from polluted air. Originally displayed in the 2017 exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? in 2017, this object not only highlights the great demand for masks, particularly at this time, but it also questions the ways in which these products are produced and their impact on the environment.

Salim Al-Kadi with Beirut Architecture Office. K29 Keffiyeh 002. 2017

Salim Al-Kadi with Beirut Architecture Office. K29 Keffiyeh 002. 2017

Salim Al-Kadi with Beirut Architecture Office. K29 Keffiyeh 002. 2017

Lebanese architect and designer Salim Al-Kadi’s take on the keffiyeh is made out of Kevlar—a powerful, US-made synthetic fiber typically used to reinforce protective vests and helmets and provide bullet resistance. Since exporting Kevlar for private use is illegal, the length used for this protoype had to be smuggled into Lebanon for delivery to a woman in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh in Saida, 27 miles south of Beirut. She was instructed to embroider a traditional cross-stitch pattern on the textile that would preserve the structural integrity of the Kevlar fibers. The project is a reflection on the violence that surrounds us and the ways in which we have internalized it. “Historically, the keffiyeh was worn to protect one from the environment,” the designer has explained. “Violence is our new environment.”

Karthik Dinakar with Catherine Kreatsoulas, Analise Alexandra Emhoff, Irina Krugalova, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Women and Heart Disease: Physician Bias and AI. 2019

Karthik Dinakar with Catherine Kreatsoulas, Analise Alexandra Emhoff, Irina Krugalova, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Women and Heart Disease: Physician Bias and AI. 2019

Karthik Dinakar with Catherine Kreatsoulas, Analise Alexandra Emhoff, Irina Krugalova, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Women and Heart Disease: Physician Bias and AI. 2019

Studies have shown that women coming into hospitals and other medical centers with serious cardiac symptoms are not receiving necessary attention. This is due to their elevated pain threshold, as well as other social conditions such as gender roles that lead them to underplay the level of discomfort when communicating their symptoms to a physician. For this project—a commission for the XXII Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival—a group of researchers at MIT and Harvard working in the field of cardio-linguistics were paired with illustrator Irina Krugalova to create an easily understandable, Heimlich maneuver-like poster that teaches ER professionals how to better interpret women’s symptoms. Since gender bias is not the only type of bias plaguing the medical profession, design—with its ability to communicate complex ideas through simple visual language—can be a powerful tool in times of crisis.