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Social Anxiety and Contemporary Design

Category: Features

Today, more than at any other time in the past, people around the globe live in an elevated state of anxiety provoked by both actual and perceived dangers. As a result of this heightened sensitivity to potential risks and threats, suddenly we all question where to find a secure environment in which to live our lives. Some of the most significant contemporary issues that engender feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and social disintegration include the international economic meltdown, seemingly never-ending wars, the threat of terrorism, widely transmittable diseases, increasing destruction of the environment, natural disasters and the growing divide between the wealthy and the more than 1,200,000,000 people living on less than $1 a day.

This widespread social anxiety has instigated a paradigm shift in several areas of contemporary design. Traditionally, good design has been characterized by stylish, if not beautiful, aesthetics, cost, and function. In the last decade, contemporary design has reflected a growth in customization and individualization brought about by new technology and the Internet. During the last few years, however, an increasing number of international designers have been provoking awareness of, and thoughts about, shared global issues and concerns. As a number of the designers in “The State of Things” demonstrate, this can take the form of manifesting the causes of anxiety, surface descriptions calling attention to specific issues, and creating socially responsible works that directly address and attempt to solve life-threatening situations.

Until late in 2008, the global economy was flourishing. It was a world of runaway credit, spending on unnecessary luxuries and unsecured mortgages. However, as time progressed and international stock markets fell, there was an appreciable increase in poverty, loss of jobs, and homelessness, with many companies and privately owned stores collapsing and disappearing. A work that serves as a metaphor for this age of economic crisis is Marcel Wanders’ The Killing of the Piggy Bank. The latest edition to the Moooi Royal Delft collection, this porcelain vase looks like a piggy bank-a traditional vessel for storing money in the form of loose change. Normally, the money stored in a piggy bank is accessed through a large plug on the underside of the pig. In Wanders’s piece, the shift from prosperity to crisis is represented by the attached gold hammer and coin-like gold eyes. The use of a hammer, intended to shatter the bank, indicates that the need to get at the money is an emergency or unusual situation requiring speed, and that there will probably not be any use for storing extra change in the near future. During these difficult economic times, the wearing of expensive jewels and gold is considered to be ostentatious and in bad taste. Therefore, there is a tendency to conceal objects denoting wealth. This disguising of prosperity is an ironic characteristic of the work of both Kashayar Naimanan and Tobias Wong. Naimanan’s Hidden Wealth series is a recent collaboration with the traditional German porcelain factory Nymphenburg, known since the 18th century for its beautiful hand-painted Rococo plates and accessories. Naimanan’s dishes and cups subvert the original tradition of visible public opulence by making them luxuries to be indulged in only in private. Instead of decorating their surfaces, Naimanan adds the classic Rococo motifs to the underside of the porcelain pieces so they are hidden from view; only the owners and users know they are there.

Tobias Wong similarly subverts the idea of preciousness in his Black Diamond Watch. Recognizing the increasingly obsolete nature of watches today, Wong uses an inexpensive black Casio wristwatch, from which he removes the clock mechanism. Keeping the outer crystal but doing away with the clock face, in place of the numerals Wong inserts black Swarovski crystals. As a result, despite its appearance, the work is now a Swarovski bracelet made from fine crystals and a cheap watchband. In initial contrast with the work of the above two designers, in his Wrapped in Gold furniture series, architect Andreas Angelidakis adds luxury to his home, but in a very inexpensive way. With a nod towards 18th century French gilded furniture made for court and royalty, he covers simple modern furniture with sheets of gold foil.

For the last few decades, oil has become more precious and difficult to obtain than pure gold. Recently, it has been the cause of international wars and a rising discrepancy between the prosperity of countries that have it and the decline of those that do not. Reinforcing the value of oil on today’s international economies, Cory Ingram created Crude, 50 milliliters of crude oil elegantly packaged in a limited edition of 50 beautiful perfume bottles. It sells for US$280. It is both an artwork and a luxury item, as a barrel of this crude oil would cost almost $1 million. Ironically playing on our fears of lack of oil, Crude forces us to consider a future in which this formerly plentiful natural resource has been depleted.

At the other extreme of the economic crisis are the millions of people in developing countries who are dying of poverty, starvation, unclean water, and diseases like AIDS. They have no access to the benefits of Western technology, products and services, and are increasingly isolated from the developed world. A significant shift has occurred in Western design in the past decade, as more designers are taking on the idea of social initiatives and responsible design. Through their efforts, designs that are not particularly aesthetically pleasing, or even very functional, transform-and in some cases save-human lives.

Today, more than 1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water. To combat this, Vestergaard Frandsen, a company that specializes in developing technology for humanitarian purposes, invented the LifeStraw and the LifeStraw Family. Without using any electricity or batteries, the series provides simple, small and easily transported user-based water-treatment systems. Both the individual and the family versions are proven to filter out 99.9 percent of all bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The LifeStraw Family filters a minimum of 18,000 liters of water, providing safe drinking water for a typical sub-Saharan clan of seven for an astonishing three years.

Matlo, by Doshi Levien, is designed to be an affordable, environmentally friendly alternative to the water cooler and filter: It does not require electricity and its main components can be made from locally sourced clay. Based on the traditional terra-cotta vessels found in most homes in India, it can also be used by those living in poverty in undeveloped parts of the world. The design combines the cooling properties of the clay, which is slip-cast and fired, with high-performance ceramic diatomite filters that stop toxins and produce portable, safe drinking water.

One of the most critical issues for the developing world is isolation and lack of education. As the pace of change in the world increases dramatically, the urgency to prepare all children to be full citizens of the emerging world also increases dramatically. No one can predict the world our children will inherit. A number of designers are addressing these issues. KVA MATx, a not-for-profit company, designed the Portable Light to create a new way to deliver renewable light for the 2 billion people who currently live without electricity. Flexible photovoltaic panels are inserted into a cloth that can be made locally from woven blankets, clothing or textiles; powered by stored energy from the sun, it produces a bright white light with five hours of charge time. Weighing less than eight ounces, it can be rolled or folded for shipping or transport, and is easily carried on the body. The Portable Light has been serving indigenous communities in the Mexican Sierra Madre since 2005, while new Portable Light projects are under way for Nicaragua and for the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazon.

In 2002, MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, working with Fuseproject of San Francisco, created One Laptop Per Child. A simple, low-power, low cost, ruggedly build computer, it was initially used in a small, remote, Cambodian village and transformed the resident children’s’ lives. Since then it has been used in developing countries throughout the world. By enabling the computer to connect to the Internet, and equipping it with software designed for self-initiated learning, this project has broken down the isolation in which many of the world’s poorest children live, and exposed them to global educational experiences. The latest version of the computer, named One Laptop per Child XOXO, is a complete departure from the traditional keyboard and screen layout. Instead, its dual touch screen provides an uninterrupted surface on which one can interface from any direction, creating a new way to play with information and to communicate. As a result, it is not just a laptop, but also functions as a book, a tablet, and a board. The computer is now thinner, simpler and soft to the touch, like a piece of luggage – uninterrupted by keyboards, buttons, speaker holes, input devices and visible connectors.

In just the past year, the AIDS epidemic in Africa has claimed the lives of millions, often infecting one or two out of every three people in a small area. Today more than 11 million children have been made orphans by the disease. A significant barrier to preventing the spread of AIDS is that many men refuse to use condoms. To combat this, Willem van Rensburg and Roelf Mulder of XYZ Design designed the Pronto condom applicator to encourage the use of condoms. Voted South Africa’s Most Beautiful Object at the 2007 Design Indaba, the applicator allows a condom to be put on very easily and rapidly. In addition, the packaging of the Pronto is very engaging and bright, with images of Superheroes, in order to change the negative male perception of condom use.

Too often in South Africa, women diagnosed with HIV feel stigmatized and believe that the disease has become the most important part of their identity. To combat this, designer Jane Solomon runs a series of “body mapping” workshops for them to alter this outlook, learn more about the disease and share experiences. For her Lifelines fabrics, inspired by African resist-dyed textiles, Solomon created a decorative surface design by printing the cotton textiles with photographic images of the HIV virus and lines that link them. At first glance, the results are very attractive; yet an understanding of the true nature of the textile’s designs, Solomon hopes, will to shift perceptions and discrimination against the virus and those who live with it on a daily basis.


The continuing destruction of the environment through human impact, conspicuous waste of natural resources, and natural disasters are increasingly affecting noticeable climate change around the globe. If this destruction persists, many believe it will eventually lead to mass devastation of the world and those inhabiting it. As Freedom of Creation designer Janne Kyttänen observes, today many believe that global warming is a crisis, while others are skeptical that it exists. For a number of years, Freedom of Creation has been building a global manufacturing network specializing in low-waste rapid prototyping. Kyttänen’s Riot Lamp is intended to inspire everyone to consider and fight for changing the ways we live in order to preserve and protect the environment. The circular lampshade is covered with three-dimensional words: “TIME BOMB!” “WE ARE ALREADY TOO LATE” and “CRIMES AGAINST THE PLANET,” as well as figures of a crucifixion, skeletons and a picture of former President George W. Bush. These are held in place by a thick strand of barbed wire, on which a number of small airplanes circle the shade from its top to its bottom rim. Made entirely of recycled materials, including metal parts, switches, and cables, Riot Lamp is produced in partnership with Megaman, a specialist in energy-saving, minimum-heat-generating lighting technologies. The designer intends to continue selling the lamp in limited editions until the global warming problem is solved.

The NEL Collective’s Global Warming Rug for Nanimarquina is a deceptively cute statement reminding us that the disastrous effects of global warming are not just a problem for humans. As a result of the climate changes, a number of animal species face extinction. The blue rug, with a very small area of white on which stands a tiny polar bear, is initially seen as a plush, attractive floor decoration. On closer inspection, however, it is evident that the bear is stranded on an ice cap that is barely large enough to support it. For the NEL Collective, the rug is a call to action: There are an estimated 20,000 polar bears in the world that depend upon Arctic weather for their lives. Many are starving because of an increasing shortage of food, or drowning as their territory melts, having to swim impossible distances to find solid ice. As a result of this, and of people destroying the bears’ natural habitat to find oil and natural gas, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that there will be a loss of two thirds of the polar bear population in the next 50 years. The rug is a reminder of the fragility of all life with the threatening increases in global warming.

Responding to the incredible waste of natural products, WOKmedia’s Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner have designed a furniture series called Once. Made in an edition of 20, the furniture is constructed entirely of inexpensive wood chopsticks. Although its appearance suggests it is dangerous to use, the work is a statement about preserving the natural environment through recycling. It is estimated that China produces more than 45 billion wood chopsticks a year that are used once and then thrown away; to make them requires the wood of 25 million fully grown trees. To draw attention to this, Mathias and Kaeppner created chairs, stools and tables out of thousands of recycled chopsticks. These are dropped into a stack that, because of the huge number of interlacing sticks, supports the weight of a person. Two humble splints of wood, designed to be snapped apart before use and discarded after a meal, have become a symbol of monumental waste in a world of depleting resources.

Although humans increasingly tried to tame and control the environment throughout the 20th century, the multiple disasters of the last few years-tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, lack of rain-have proven that ultimately nature remains more powerful. Some believe that the intensity and number of these recent disasters has been exacerbated by global warming. In 2005, for example, Hurricane Katrina killed or made missing more than 2,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes and parts of cities along the southeastern American coastline. Hundreds of people drowned as the resulting high water levels made evacuation impossible. In anticipation of a future disaster, Yael Mer created the Evacuation Skirt. The stylish and flowing red garment is visually striking when paired with a black-and-white striped top. However, should the wearer be caught in a disaster involving water, the skirt inflates, becoming a functioning kayak.

Potential dangers surround us, even in our domestic lives. The danger of mixing water and electricity and the fear of fire are instilled in all of us in childhood. Several of the designers in this exhibition deal with these concerns in different ways. Floodlight, by Michael Cross and Julie Mathias of WOKmedia, provocatively subverts our fear of being electrocuted when something electrified is combined with water. In a seemingly counterintuitive way, the designers immerse dozens of brightly colored wires connecting viable lightbulbs in water. When turned on, the result is luminous forms and beautiful shadows. (“It only looks dangerous,” Cross points out.) By flirting with our perceptions of danger, WOKmedia makes us question our ideas of what is safe and what is not.

One of the dangers of facing a true domestic fire is that traditional fire extinguishers are so bulky and ugly that they are often placed far from the living areas, and are hard to reach in an emergency. Peter Arnell’s fire extinguisher for HomeHero, by contrast, is a 16-inch sleek, elegant, ergonomic design that, as the designer notes, “people would be proud to have out on their countertops.” It has a one-button nozzle system, enabling single-handed use. As a result, when a fire breaks out, the homeowner can immediately begin to extinguish the flames, making it far more likely that the fire gets put out.

Seemingly endless wars, threats of terrorism and escalating differences between peoples due to religion, politics, resources and ethnicity continue across the world today. As the artist-designer Michael Minelli notes, “September 11, 2001, changed the way I perceive the world. I felt traumatized. I didn’t want to do the same work.” As a result, although he had not previously worked with the medium, Minelli turned his hand to making the Not by Everybody series of porcelain figures. From a distance, the works resemble examples of elegant 17th- and 18th-century design. However, on closer viewing, their surfaces are covered with cracks, splits, areas of sagging clay and evidence of the artist’s fingerprints. In taking on a material with which he was not very familiar, Minnelli challenges ideas of surface beauty, perfection and the elegant nature of porcelain. This is compounded by the intentionally ambiguous and disturbing subject matter each figure represents, and which Minnelli anticipates will cause every viewer to have his/her own interpretations of the works. In The Mountaintop, a lone man stands on a pile of rubble. His face is blurred and unrecognizable, and he wears upon his head something that could be interpreted as either a turban or a hat. Over his clothes he wears a vest, the front of which is covered with sticks of dynamite, signaling he is a potential suicide bomber. It is not clear what he is holding in one hand, but his arms are raised in a gesture implying supplication, questioning or praying prior to completing the intended action. For some, the hooded figure in The Picturesque (Mercy) is immediately recognizable as an allusion to Abu Ghraib, while others may feel it is a nod to the Ku Klux Klan or the traditional placing of a hood over someone about to be hanged. During, Before and After is a reference to the devastating floods brought on by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. In the work, an isolated human leg and a separated hand grasping a mailbox rise out of the turbulent water. Various pieces of debris float by a lamb that is stranded on pieces of wood by the rising flood.

Through her wallpaper designs, Jessica Smith uses elements of domestic design to explore prevalent contemporary issues and concerns through contradictory, unexpected imagery. Although her products seem innocuous from a distance, they contain highly ironic commentaries on contemporary life, remixed within well-known historic textile patterns. In Spying Over China, Smith highlights our uneasy relations with a country with which we have had little contact throughout the 20th century. In one wallpaper pattern, one initially sees elements of Chinoiserie, but these are interspersed with very contemporary imagery: military airplanes that seem to be carrying on surveillance or spying on the Chinese landscape below. This overt political statement emphasizes the complicated history of the relations between Asia and the West. As the designer notes, “While often ironic in its interpretation, I intend for my [artwork] to make a more inclusive statement. I hope to make work that sets a stage for thoughtful conversations.”

Most prejudice represents a lack of familiarity, knowledge and curiosity, and is the cause of most wars and acts of terrorism. Global prejudice against differing religions, ethnic groups, races, genders, politics and cultures continues worldwide, and, in some cases, is increasing. This, despite the vast access to information brought about by the Internet. The city of New York is, relative to its size, one of the places where the largest number of diverse people amicably coexist. At the same time, it has been, and possibly will continue to be, the site of terrorist actions. Representing this diversity, Lauren and Constantine Boym created Babel Blocks, named after the Old Testament story in which God changed everyone’s language so the people could not understand each other. Each of the wooden figures represents a different ethnicity or religion: Moishe the Jew, Nafisa the Muslim, Mary the Catholic, Chen the Chinese, and José the Latin American. Simply made and painted, the figures, and their existence together as a set, represent a future time in which the majority of today’s pervasive social anxiety will no longer exist. Beginning with children who will play with them, the Babel Blocks suggest the possibility of a world of peaceful, internationally collaborative existence.