This December, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will present “Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics,” an exhibition examining design’s role in times of crisis. Organized during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition will feature the work of communities and individuals who came together to aid each other, push for change and create new spaces, objects and services. Architectural case studies and historical narratives will appear alongside creative responses to current pandemics.
On view in the Design Process Galleries on the first floor from Dec. 10 through Feb. 20, 2023, the exhibition is curated and designed by MASS Design Group with Cooper Hewitt.
“Collaborating with MASS Design Group allowed Cooper Hewitt to explore design responses to the pandemic alongside experts in the field of design for health care,” said Ellen Lupton, Cooper Hewitt’s senior curator of contemporary design. “The exhibition highlights hospitals designed by MASS Design Group as well as products, prototypes and graphics by dozens of designers, entrepreneurs and individuals. The exhibition features a variety of artifacts gathered by Cooper Hewitt’s Responsive Collecting Initiative, a process launched in 2020 to document the crucial challenges of our time.”
“Breathing is spatial,” said Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group. “This fact has implications at the scale of the body, building, city and planet. It turns out there’s an entire history of how buildings were designed in order to promote air flow and reduce the transmission of airborne diseases.”
Epidemics—in the past and in the present—have triggered the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease while exposing gaps and failures in cultural, social, physiological and infrastructural systems. COVID-19, like other epidemics, has more intensely affected marginalized communities.
In response to COVID-19, designers, artists, doctors, engineers and others collaborated to create design innovations that address community and individual needs. Using practices such as open-source collaboration, rapid-response prototyping, product hacking and social activism, they created medical devices, protective gear, infographics, political posters, architecture and community services. From practical solutions to experimental prototypes, this recent work underscores the understanding that equity is essential to a healthy world.
“Design and Healing” opens with a multimedia installation designed by Samuel Stubblefield. This video projection and soundscape uses brain waves to build a collective portrait, reflecting the growing trend to monitor human health with digital devices. The introductory gallery also features sections on Information Graphics, Monitoring the Body, Social Distance, Mutual Aid and background about MASS Design Group and the work of its COVID-19 Design Response team.
The second gallery is organized around elemental forces connected to the prevention, treatment and spread of disease: Light, Air, Water and Insects. The exhibition will explore objects and architectural forms that have had a profound impact on human health over the course of history. For example, in the 19th century, John Snow’s maps proved that contaminated water caused the spread of cholera, leading to the design of sanitation systems in cities like London and New York.
Fighting disease with masks and protective clothing is an ancient practice. When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), many individuals came together to create masks, face shields and other equipment. Among the works on view will be a display of masks that address the needs of various users, from a clear-fronted mask to help people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to visualize speech to masks that can be worn with a hijab or turban. The exhibition will also feature masks that were used for activist messaging, including a mask worn during the U.S. Open by tennis player Naomi Osaka emblazoned with the names of Black people who died at the hands of police, and artist Julia Kwon’s “Unapologetically Asian” mask, created to denounce anti-Asian violence.
The third gallery, Intensive Care, looks at technologies created to automate or assist human breathing or to protect caregivers from contaminated air. The medical devices on view in this section were designed at record speed to meet rigorous demands for safety, performance, cost and ease of manufacturing and distribution.
The exhibition closes with Breathing Space in the museum’s light-filled conservatory. Cooper Hewitt commissioned Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta, designers in New Delhi, to create a sanctuary in the glass and metal structure built as part of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion in 1902. Sahil & Sarthak’s installation wraps the conservatory in cushions woven with long pom-pom yarns, reclaimed from the textile industry and woven by traditional daybed weavers. The Breathing Space also includes an original soundscape composed by Stubblefield, featuring music derived from letters of gratitude to health care workers. The installation aims to nurture feelings of comfort and intimacy in a time often marked by isolation and uncertainty. (This music comes from a new installation at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.)
“Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics” is made possible with major support from Crystal and Chris Sacca.
Generous support is also provided by Lisa Roberts and David Seltzer and the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.
To accompany the exhibition, the museum will publish The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity (November 2021), authored by MASS Design Group, and distributed by Artbook | D.A.P. The book charts historical epidemics alongside modern and contemporary architectural transformations in service of medicine, health and habitation, exploring how infrastructure facilitates healing and architecture’s greater role in constructing our societies.
A second edition of Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health (February 2022) will contain current design projects born from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The book is authored by Bon Ku, MD, and Ellen Lupton, and co-published with MIT Press.
MASS Design Group (Regina Chen, Jeffrey Mansfield, Michael Murphy, Morgan O’Hara and Maggie Stern)
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design, and Julie Pastor, curatorial assistant)
Exhibition designer: MASS Design Group (Annie Wang)
Graphic designers: Span (Alyssa Arnesen and Bud Rodecker) and Rick Valicenti
About cooper hewitt
Cooper Hewitt is America’s design museum. Inclusive, innovative and experimental, the museum’s dynamic exhibitions, education programs, master’s program, publications and online resources inspire, educate and empower people through design. An integral part of the Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum, education and research complex—Cooper Hewitt is located on New York City’s Museum Mile in the historic, landmark Carnegie Mansion. Steward of one of the world’s most diverse and comprehensive design collections—over 215,000 objects that range from an ancient Egyptian faience cup dating to about 1100 BC to contemporary 3D-printed objects and digital code—Cooper Hewitt welcomes everyone to discover the importance of design and its power to change the world.
About MASS Design Group
A Model of Architecture for Society (MASS) Design Group was founded in 2008 as a non-profit organization motivated by an idea for a different way of practice. MASS grew to include many colleagues and contributors who worked together to design and build the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, a project of Partners In Health and the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Since then, the organization has grown to a team of 200 architects, landscape architects, engineers, builders, furniture designers, writers, filmmakers and researchers representing 20 countries across the globe. MASS operates design labs, including Public Memory and Memorials Lab and Restorative Justice Design Lab in Boston; Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab in Sante Fe, New Mexico; and the Food Systems and Fringe Cities Lab in Hudson Valley, New York. Recent work includes African Leadership University flagship campus in Kigali, Rwanda; Family Health Center on Virginia in McKinney, Texas, MASS’ first completed U.S.-health project; and the Gun Violence Memorial Project on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. MASS published Justice is Beauty, commemorating 10 years of global work, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity, published by Cooper Hewitt.
Images: GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, 2015, MASS Design Group; photograph © Iwan Baan; Rebirth Garments Mask, 2021, Sky Cubacub, Rebirth Garments; Ventizolve Naloxone Kit, 2020, ANTI (A New Type of Interface); Zero-waste Scrub Set, 2020, Danielle Elsener.