Written by Julia Carabatsos
Featured image: Face mask, Philando Castile, 2020; Designed by Naomi Osaka; Gift of Naomi Osaka, Cooper Hewitt Responsive Collecting Initiative; Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images
A grey sphere with red spikes: by now, we immediately recognize this form as an image of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The ubiquitous illustration—created by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has shaped the way we’ve thought about the pandemic, putting an image to the invisible virus. The attention-grabbing red spikes and the tactile, bumpy surface of the coronavirus illustration help to communicate that COVID-19 is a real threat.
Eckert and Higgins’s medical illustration is among the designs that Cooper Hewitt has acquired in the last year through the Responsive Collecting Initiative (RCI). The project—co-chaired by contemporary design curators Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Andrea Lipps—marks the museum’s commitment to collecting objects that tell design stories about the historic moment we’re living through. In addition to designs that pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has also acquired works that address the movements for racial and social justice, the 2020 election, and the climate crisis. With the framework of RCI in place, Cooper Hewitt plans to continue to collect objects that demonstrate how design shapes and responds to the most pressing issues of contemporary life.
The RCI has opened discussions about acquisitions to all Cooper Hewitt colleagues, beyond just the curatorial team. RCI invites submissions for potential acquisitions from full-time and contract staff, volunteers, Collections Committee members, and trustees. Proposals are evaluated by a cross-departmental RCI Committee. When our first open call closed on November 6, 2020, we had received 100 submissions from colleagues across the museum. After rigorous discussions among the RCI Committee over the last year, Cooper Hewitt has acquired 32 designs to date.
Since the RCI’s inception, it has acquired numerous face masks. The designs build on and go beyond the basic blue medical mask, transcending issues of health and safety to accommodate different communities and make bold statements of belief. Timzy Batra released a collection of specialty face masks designed to attach at the back of the head rather than loop over the ears in order to meet the needs of Sikh men who wear turbans. Teen Vogue editor Emily Shippee started Anywear, a clothing line offering fashionable and comfortable face coverings for healthcare workers designed in collaboration with stylists and models. Anywear’s partnership with model Halima Aden resulted in matching hijab and mask sets for Muslim healthcare workers that could easily be put on and taken off in their high-pressure, fast-paced workplace.
Ai Weiwei created a mask that is silk-screened with a graphic of a middle finger, one of several designs sold to raise money for charities like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. The imagery speaks to his commitment to human rights and free speech and points to the way that masks, in their prominent place on a wearer’s face, can powerfully express political beliefs. Monique Péan’s “Unity” face mask, sold by President Joe Biden’s campaign, uses language and neutral colors to urge Americans to come together during a period of political divisiveness heightened during the months leading up to the November 2020 election. Other acquisitions also address the 2020 election, including Ben Doessel and James Lee’s “Ugly Gerry” font. The typeface’s letterforms are assembled from the jagged and lopsided shapes of many congressional districts, plainly illustrating their irregularity and the problematic nature of gerrymandering.
Some RCI acquisitions chart how design helped us cope with the quarantines and social distancing of the pandemic. Paul Cocksedge’s “Here Comes the Sun” blanket features four circles of cloth positioned six feet apart along a ring, to facilitate safe outdoor meetings. Jonathan Anderson’s fashion label Loewe, released a “Show in a Box” to present its spring 2021 collections when gathering for an in-person runway show was impossible. The box, which is a potential acquisition, contains images of silhouettes, clippings of fabrics, and even a vinyl record with sounds from the company’s factory in Spain that together create a multisensory at-home fashion show.
Many of the designs we’ve acquired surround the protests that arose after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Just as Ai Weiwei uses the prevalent, public form of the face mask to advocate for human rights and free speech, tennis player Naomi Osaka brought attention to the movement for racial justice during her 2020 tournaments by wearing one of a set of seven masks that each bore the name of a Black American unjustly killed at the hands of the police, including Breonna Taylor and Philando Castile. A poster by Ernesto Yerena Montejano and Nancy Mbabazi Musinguzi features a woman wearing a face mask between the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police,” pointing to the resilience of citizens who, amid a pandemic, marched for change.
Finally, the environmental crisis remains at the forefront of our minds. The Climate Crisis font, by type designers Eino Korkala and Daniel Coull for Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and TBWA/Helsinki, is a variable typeface that offers a dynamic visualization of the effects of climate change on Arctic Sea ice. The font maps data about the shrinking expanses of ice onto the weight of the typeface. Its robust letters representing information from 1979 melt into illegibility by the 2050 projection, marking the passage of time and our collective action or inaction regarding climate change.
Many of these works are currently on view in Cooper Hewitt’s Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics exhibition (open December 10, 2021– February 20, 2023). In the meantime, the RCI remains an ongoing initiative. We look forward to providing further updates as this work continues.
Julia Carabatsos interned at Cooper Hewitt from July to December 2021 and worked on the Responsive Collecting Initiative under the supervision of Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Andrea Lipps. She will graduate from the Bard Graduate Center in 2022 with an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture.