Fighting disease with masks and protective clothing is an ancient practice. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) around the world. In spring 2020, PPE was especially scarce throughout the United States in nursing homes, prisons, and care facilities for people with disabilities. Individuals came together to create face coverings for neighbors and health care workers. Engineers, artists, doctors, and designers sought to improve the comfort, cost, effectiveness, and sustainability of PPE. Their visionary ideas are shaping the future of masks and other protective gear.

Content from the exhibition Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, curated by MASS Design Group and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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Plague Doctor, 1656
Bubonic plague killed more than 45 million people in Asia and Europe in the 14th century. Plague doctors in Europe protected themselves with gloves, boots, bird-like masks, and long overcoats. They used canes to examine patients and keep people at a distance.

Sepia-toned drawn plague doctor in profile dressed in a long overcoat, a bird-like mask with a curved beak and a round, glass-shield eye, a wide-brimmed hat, thick gloves and heeled boots

Drawing: A physician dressed in a protective plague costume, line engraving after Jean-Jacques Manget (Swiss, 1652–1742), Wellcome Collection

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Spanish Flu, 1918–19
During the 1918–19 Influenza Pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu, public health measures included wearing masks, limiting social contact, and shutting down public places.

Black and white photograph showing a group of standing healthcare workers dressed in floor-length white gowns wearing masks and cloth-caps, three sit in a car and one in a sidecar

Photograph: Masked health care workers, 1919

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Condoms Can Protect Any Person, No Matter What Color They Are, ca. 1994
The AIDS pandemic prompted the widespread use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

White poster with a row of five condoms in red, black, brown, peach and yellow along the top and [Condoms / Can Protect / Any Person, / No Matter / What Color / They Are.] printed underneath

Poster: Minnesota AIDS Project (USA), lithograph, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Minnesota AIDS Project; 1995-29-2

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Say Their Names Mask, 2020
During her competition in the 2020 US Open, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka wore seven face masks, each emblazoned with the name of a Black person who died at the hands of police. Osaka’s choice to broadcast her message on face masks also emphasized the role of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans.

Tennis player Naomi Osaka wears a black face mask with the name

Naomi Osaka (Japanese, b. 1997); Screen print on cotton; Gift of Naomi Osaka, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative; Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

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Motoko Face Shield and Hood, 2020
Designed in Bulgaria by fashion designer Katya Lozanova, this hooded face shield buckles securely under the arms. The large shield offers a wide field of vision and ample space for a mask or eyeglasses. The shield can be unzipped for cleaning. Face shields can supplement masks, offering protection for the mouth, nose, and eyes.

Woman wearing black hood that extends to her upper back and is secured under her arms with buckling straps. A zipper connects the front of the hood to a clear face shield.

Katya Lozanova (Bulgarian); Cotton, polyester, cellulose diacetate, plastic; Museum purchase, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative

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iSphere, 2020
Marco Canevacci and Yena Young are directors of the art group Plastique Fantastique. When cities around the world mandated face coverings, Canevacci and Young developed the iSphere, a transparent, hollow sphere that fits over the human head. This amusing but also serious object is reminiscent of 1950s space helmets.

Two light-skinned figures wear large clear-plastic spheres over their heads and round sunglasses; one, on the left, wears a brown suit, the other wears a black coat, they stand in front of cars and a shopping center

Marco Canevacci (Italian, b. 1970) and Yena Young (Korean, b. 1982), Plastique Fantastique (Berlin, Germany, founded 1999); Polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PET-G) transparent plastic; Photograph: Marco Barotti; Courtesy of Plastique Fantastique

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Vue Shield, 2020
Created by fashion designer Joe Doucet, the Vue Shield protects against contaminated droplets and splashes. Tinted versions filter out blue light from digital screens and harmful UV rays from the sun. The CDC does not recommend using face shields as a substitute for masks.

Clear, oval-shaped face shield with rounded edges, a curved nose bridge, and eyeglass arms to secure behind a user's ears.

Joe Doucet (American, b. 1970); Vue Shield Investments (founded Miami, Florida, USA, 2021); Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic and polycarbonate plastic; Gift of Joe Doucet and Vue Shield LLC, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative

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Essential Mask Brace, 2020
Designed by engineers Sabrina Paseman, Katherine Paseman, and William Paseman, the Essential Mask Brace can be combined with a surgical mask to create a comfortable, sustainable, and affordable alternative to an N95 respirator. Made from soft silicone rubber, the Essential Mask Brace presses a surgical mask snugly around the user’s nose and mouth for a tighter seal. The CDC endorsed the use of mask braces in February 2021.

A woman wearing a surgical mask and a silicone brace layered over it.

Sabrina Paseman (American, b. 1991); Katherine Paseman (American, b. 1996); William Paseman (American, b, 1954); Fix the Mask (Walnut, California, USA, founded 2020); Biocompatible silicone; Courtesy of Sabrina Paseman

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HappyShield, 2020
The Center for Natural Material Innovation created an open-source design for HappyShield, a face shield that can be made by hand from flat plastic. Simple origami folds give structure to the face shield, which is washable and reusable. Instructions are published online in multiple languages.

A woman in profile wearing a white face mask, safety glasses, and a folded clear face shield with a black elastic headband

Centre for Natural Material Innovation, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom; University of Queensland School of Civil Engineering, Australia Folded Structures Lab (founded 2020) Foam, plastic Courtesy of University of Cambridge

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Ýrúrarí Mask, 2020
Icelandic textile artist Ýrúrarí creates humorous knitted garments using recycled materials. In spring 2020, she knitted sculptural masks as a playful way to cope with isolation during lockdown. Her masks celebrate the ability of craft and design to bolster mental and physical health. They are not intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A woman wears a knitted face mask depicted a cartoonish mouth full of teeth and a large, sculptural bifurcated pink tongue that forms ribbonlike strips that end in points at the wearer's nose

Ýr Jóhannsdóttir (Icelandic, b. 1992); Handknit, mixed recycled wool; Collection of Tatter Textile Library; Photo: Mark Tom, Courtesy of Tatter Journal

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Breathe Mask, 2020
Designer Timzy Batra belongs to the Sikh community, which calls on men to cover their hair with a turban that conceals their ears. Today, many Sikh women also wear turbans. Batra’s adjustable cotton mask fits over a turban.

Man in profile with a gray and pink striped mask secured over lower face and a black turban

Timzy Batra (Indian, active Singapore, b. 1979); Cotton; Gift of Timzy Batra, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative

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Modiste Mask and Hijab, 2020
Model Halima Aden, herself a former health care worker, designed this face covering and hijab in collaboration with Modiste, a fashion tech company founded by Emily Shippee, and Allure magazine. The mask loops around the hijab, enhancing comfort by relieving pressure on the ears.

Profile of woman wearing a light mauve hijab with matching colored face mask

Halima Aden (American, b. 1997) for Modiste (New York, New York, USA, founded 2020); Organic tetra; Gift of Modiste, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative

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OESH Reusable Respirator, 2020
Dr. Casey Kerrigan is founder of OESH, a shoe company in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2020, Kerrigan manufactured hundreds of reusable respirators for local health care workers. They are made from the same springy, 3D-printed material employed in OESH’s health-focused shoes. The soft, flexible design works especially well for women, whose faces are often too small for standard respirators.

Light blue translucent respirator with two disk-like protrusions

Dr. Casey Kerrigan (American b. 1961); OESH (Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, founded 2009); 3D-printed elastomer; Courtesy of Casey Kerrigan

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TEAL Reusable Respirator, 2020
The TEAL Reusable Respirator is a sustainable, comfortable alternative to an N95 respirator. Designed at MIT in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the TEAL is made with soft, transparent silicone rubber, which seals comfortably against the face. A person’s mouth is visible, making communication easier.

Clear rubber facial respirator with two disc-shaped openings for filters and a blue metal nose bridge and elastic bands

Adam J. Wentworth (American, b. 1987) and James Donald Byrne (American, b. 1984) with Sirma Orguc, Joanna Sands, Saurav Maji, Caitlynn Tov, Sahab Babaee, Hen-Wei Huang, Hannah Boyce, Peter R. Chai, Seokkee Min, Canchen Li, Jacqueline N. Chu, Avik Som, Sarah L. Becker, Manish Gala, Anantha Chandrakasan, and Giovanni Traverso; MIT (Boston, Massachusetts, USA, founded 1861); Silicone rubber, anodized aluminum; Courtesy of MIT

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Oricool Origami Mask, 2021
Jiangmei Wu, an art and design professor at Indiana University Bloomington, created Oricool, an adjustable origami mask designed to fit on faces of different shapes. The washable mask body is folded from two layers of nonwoven polypropylene fabric, a material with significant filtration effectiveness. An insert provides even higher filtration.

Light skinned person wearing bright yellow face mask

Jiangmei Wu (Chinese-American, b. 1967); Olefin fabric; Courtesy of Jiangmei Wu

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Mobile Mask Machine Mask, 2020
Janique L. Robillard, Katja Flükiger, and Matthew Ingram founded Mobile Mask Machine in 2020. They connected with community members in various neighborhoods to host a plywood cupboard stocked with free masks hand-sewn by volunteers.

Rectangular pleated cotton face mask made up of light blue fabric patterned with stars and a gridded black fabric with stylized fried eggs

Janique L. Robillard (American/Canadian, b. 1986), Katja Flükiger (Swiss, b. 1991), and Matthew Ingram (American, b. 1992); Mobile Mask Machine (New York, New York, USA, founded 2020); Printed cotton, elastic, recycled fiber; Courtesy of Janique L. Robillard

Plywood box with masks inside placed outside on side table

Janique L. Robillard (American/Canadian, b. 1986), Katja Flükiger (Swiss, b. 1991), and Matthew Ingram (American, b. 1992); Mobile Mask Machine (New York, New York, USA, founded 2020); Printed cotton, elastic, recycled fiber; Photograph: Janique L. Robillard

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Rebirth Garments Mask, 2021
Sky Cubacub designs clothing for “nonbinary, trans, disabled, and Mad queers of all sizes and ages.” This clear mask makes conversation easier for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and for teachers, therapists, and multilingual people. Cubacub has designed 11 different mask closures for people with different fine motor skills; the mask on display uses Velcro®.

Photograph of a light-skinned individual dressed in bright colors adjusting a pink and purple face mask with a clear mouth panel, standing against a sun-dappled leafy green backdrop.

Sky Cubacub (Filipinx-American, b. 1991); Rebirth Garments (Chicago, Illinois, USA, founded 2014); Cotton, clear plastic, elastic, Velcro®; Courtesy of Sky Cubacub

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Unapologetically Asian, 2020
Artist Julia Kwon created her Unapologetically Asian masks to celebrate mask-wearing and to denounce anti-Asian violence. Asian communities were early to adopt face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, owing partly to their experiences with previous epidemics. Masks elicited racist responses from some people. Kwon’s masks use a traditional Korean patchwork technique.

A colorful face mask made up of irregular geometric silk shapes in shades of pink, blue, yellow, and green

Julia Kwon (Korean-American, b. 1987); Korean silk, cotton canvas, muslin, elastic; Museum purchase, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative

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Zero-waste Scrub Set, 2020
Danielle Elsener designs zero-waste fashion. She engineers sewing pattern layouts to eliminate textile waste. She designed her zero-waste scrubs in the UK in spring 2020. The unique surface print on this example resulted when Elsener printed the logo for National Health Service (NHS) at the wrong size.

Photo of a light-skinned woman wearing a blue and white scrub set and white sneakers.

Danielle Elsener (American, b. 1991); Cotton, sewing pattern; Courtesy of Danielle Elsener

Featured Image: Danielle Elsener (American, b. 1991) Cotton, sewing pattern Courtesy of Danielle Elsener

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