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In an exhibit at New York's MoMA of real and imaginary products, modern hazards are the muse

NEW YORK -- We live in a dangerous world, and terrorism may be the least of it. Microbes, crime, drowning, poisoning, auto accidents, tsunamis, pollution, famine, drought . . . the list is as long as human experience.

Industrial design is the exercise of the human imagination on human experience. It's inevitable, then, that design should incorporate safety and security concerns, so much so that we hardly notice. There's a reason cars have bumpers and biohazard symbols are meant to look so alarming. Form may follow function -- but function, in these and countless other instances, follows fear.

''SAFE: Design Takes on Risk," which runs at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 2, offers a wildly diverse look at how industrial designers are addressing the world's many menaces. The original idea, which predated Sept. 11, 2001, was for a show called ''Emergency," highlighting objects pertaining to emergency response. After the terrorist attacks, the show greatly expanded to include other concepts such as ''shelter," ''armor, ''property," ''everyday," and ''awareness."

Those are large and amorphous topics, and ''SAFE" is a large and amorphous show. How large? It contains more than 300 items. How amorphous? Those items include a manhole cover, earmuffs, earplugs (a dozen varieties), a drone helicopter, mine detectors, insecticidal mosquito netting, extra-safe push pins, baby carriages, a condom applicator, childproof pill bottles, a kidney transporter, a defibrillator, a Swiss Army knife, children's car seats, raised reflective pavement markers, camouflage fabrics, a laptop-concealing pizza box, and a sharksuit (it's the ultimate Halloween costume, a fabulous thing, fashioned of stainless steel, nylon, and polycarbonate).

There are objects of startling simplicity, practicality, or both: soft spoons for infants, the paper sleeves for coffee cups, and a cunningly packaged first-aid kit, containing no fewer than 39 items, developed for the French Red Cross. (The inspiration for its cylindrical shape? The brandy barrel traditionally worn by St. Bernard rescue dogs in the Alps.)

Some objects have names or uses straight out of a Don DeLillo novel, like Glass Blast Mitigation System windows or the INVERSAbrane invertible building membrane. Others almost defy description. Kosuke Tsumura's Final Home 44-pocket parka is a winter coat that doubles as a shelter. One might expect to find several of them hanging in another ''SAFE" item, the Vigilhome. A shrine to survivalism, the Vigilhome is a transportable house fully stocked with such necessities as industrial-size containers of Kellogg's Special K.

Final Home and Vigilhome may sound equally outlandish. But Tsumura's design is a mass-produced product. The Vigilhome is conceptual art. Most of the items in ''SAFE" fall into the former category, but several dozen do not.

This bifurcation between risk-addressing objects and risk-inspired artwork poses a real problem. Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine's Homeland Security Blanket -- a folded blanket with mock-official labeling -- makes an amusing, if obvious, political comment. So, too, with the How to Disappear Kit and Vending Machine, created by a workshop at the Institute of Industrial Design and Interactive Media, in Denmark. But such wit shrivels in close proximity to the plastic sheeting used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assist disaster victims, or the Bracelet of Life, a device employed by Doctors Without Borders to quickly assess a starving child's level of malnutrition. Even within the high mandarin walls of MoMA, saving lives trumps irony every time.

Sometimes it's the actual products that can seem silly. The BananaBunker, a curved, hard-plastic sheath, remedies one of mankind's less pressing problems: how to keep your banana from bruising. Or there's Matthias Megyeri's cutesifying of security: chains with heart-shaped links, barbed wire with star-shaped barbs.

Also, in fairness to the conceptual artists, the single most striking thing in ''SAFE" is Raul Cardenas Osuna's Securitree, a pole topped by more than a dozen surveillance cameras. In fact, there are two Securitrees, one for transmitting and the other for receiving. ''Camp," Susan Sontag famously wrote, ''is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers." Security is that same woman watched by as many lenses.

It's the oddness of the Securitree's appearance that makes it so arresting. That's also the case with a device employed by soldiers, the Spider Boot Antipersonnel Mine Foot Protection System -- basically, a boot worn atop a four-pronged stool. It looks like a prop from a David Cronenberg movie about foot fetishism. Although aesthetics matter in ''SAFE," terms like ''sleek," ''streamlined," and ''geometric" have less pertinence here than ''bulbous," ''blocky," and ''menacing."

This is one of the many contradictions implicit in ''SAFE" -- that in certain instances, beauty can be considered beautiful only insofar as it encourages security. Another is that there are risks -- and then there are risks. The Nido, an Italian-designed two-seater car that looks like the inside of an egg carton, is built for maximum passenger safety in a collision. Yet peer beneath the dashboard, and what do you find? A cigarette lighter. If the thunder don't get you, then the lightning will.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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