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A bedside table that transforms into a baseball bat and shield with the flick of a wrist. A bulletproof button-down shirt. A purse with the outline of a knife sewn into the side to ward off thieves.

For the Museum of Modern Art's first major design exhibition since it moved back into Manhattan from Queens, it couldn't have picked a more modern topic - our obsession with safety in an age of terror.

"Safe: Design Takes on Risk," opening tomorrow, is a collection of more than 300 items that basically say there's more to fear than fear itself. Most are actual products used to ward off danger; some, like a "tree" made of surveillance cameras, are pure art, ripe with subtext. We live in a paranoid world.

Plenty of serious products are on display - tamper-proof pill bottles, surveillance helicopters - but the exhibit includes a healthy dose of the silly as well. Safety glasses for dogs, to name just one.

"They're ironic statements on the absurdity of our fears," says curator Paola Antonelli.

Although the exhibit seems like a direct response to Sept. 11, Antonelli says it's a topic that could have been examined almost anytime recently.

"I started thinking about it in 2000," she says, "but we had to shelve it when the Twin Towers came down. I don't think it's especially topical. We left out the high-building parachutes, for example, because we weren't sure if they were a paranoiac response to the Twin Towers tragedy or a real safety product."

Certainly, terrorism isn't the only "safe" topic addressed.

Anders Mohss, the Swedish designer of the inflatable NOAQ Tubewall flood-protection system, reckons that although his temporary barrier wouldn't have replaced the broken levees in New Orleans, it could have saved many suburban homes in Louisiana from ruin (although, at $150 a meter, it maybe isn't going to be a big seller).

There's more practical stuff, too. The arsenic-removing water filter from Bangladesh is a cheap, effective, no-brainer piece of commonsense design, and already in common use. Some items, like the United Nations emergency shelter, are in use all over the world.

But some are critical of "Safe," saying that it's feeding a sense of paranoia.

"MoMA is saying we're living in a mad, bad world, and I don't think that's a healthy way to live," says Alan Miller, cultural writer and director of NY Salon (nysalon.org). "This isn't curated in a vacuum, it's a response to the climate in which we live. New Yorkers were stoic in the face of last week's subway alert. But we still accept the closure of the whole of Penn Station because of a suspicious can of soda. We're reorganizing our lives around fear and safety."

Antonelli, however, argues that feeling safe, like eating and sleeping, is one of our biggest basic priorities.

"Not in a paranoid way, but in a more everyday, mundane way," she says. "This exhibition is not about fear of terrorism or hurricanes, it's about objects that make you feel more comfortable."

And she thinks everyone who visits will see something that reflects their own experiences - from the Bengali immigrant who knows the importance of clean water, to the Upper West Side ladies who want to get hold of a pack of the special plasters that help heal Manolo and Choo blisters.

As far as New York design commentator RitaSue Siegel is concerned, it's an important collection, however far-fetched some of it might be.

Take the ballistic rose brooch. It may sound like a fashion accessory for only the most fearful among us (and it retails at $175), but as far as Siegel is concerned, it's still an impressive piece of work: "She's connecting design with peoples' lives - it's real life design - it's accessible and understandable. Go see this show - it'll make you think!"

Aren't these designers just pandering to our paranoia? Siegel doesn't think so. After all, she says, New York is a very safe city: "I don't walk around being paranoid, does anybody?"

Anyway, she says, "even if you never find yourself needing these things, it's good to know they're available."

Even Miller thinks there is some clever work here - he's especially excited about the T-shirt that's also a motherboard.

"It was commissioned by the military, but it's got fantastic potential to improve all our lives," he says.

Safe: Design Takes on Risk opens tomorrow and runs until Jan. 2 at MoMA. Admission is $20.

By FIONA FLYNN

A bedside table that transforms into a baseball bat and shield with the flick of a wrist. A bulletproof button-down shirt. A purse with the outline of a knife sewn into the side to ward off thieves.

For the Museum of Modern Art's first major design exhibition since it moved back into Manhattan from Queens, they couldn't have picked a more modern topic - our obsession with safety in an age of terror.

"Safe: Design Takes On Risk," opening tomorrow, is a collection of more than 300 items that basically say there's more to fear than fear itself. Most are actual products used to ward off danger; some, like a "tree" made of surveillance cameras, are pure art, ripe with subtext. We live in a paranoid world.

Plenty of serious products are on display - tamper-proof pill bottles, surveillance helicopters - but the exhibit includes a healthy dose of the silly as well. Safety glasses for dogs, to name just one.

"They're ironic statements on the absurdity of our fears," says curator Paola Antonelli.

Although the exhibit seems like a direct response to Sept. 11, Antonelli says it's a topic that could have been examined almost anytime recently.

"I started thinking about it in 2000," she says, "but we had to shelve it when the Twin Towers came down. I don't think it's especially topical. We left out the high-building parachutes, for example, because we weren't sure if they were a paranoiac response to the Twin Towers tragedy or a real safety product."

Certainly, terrorism isn't the only "safe" topic addressed.

Anders Mohss, the Swedish designer of the inflatable NOAQ Tubewall flood-protection system, reckons that although his temporary barrier wouldn't have replaced the broken levees in New Orleans, it could have saved many suburban homes in Louisiana from ruin (although, at $150 a meter, it maybe isn't going to be a big seller).

There's more practical stuff, too. The arsenic-removing water filter from Bangladesh is a cheap, effective, no-brainer piece of commonsense design, and already in common use. Some items, like the United Nations emergency shelter, are in use all over the world.

But some are critical of "Safe," saying that it's feeding a sense of paranoia.

"MoMA is saying we're living in a mad, bad world, and I don't think that's a healthy way to live," says Alan Miller, cultural writer and director of NY Salon (nysalon.org). "This isn't curated in a vacuum, it's a response to the climate in which we live. New Yorkers were stoic in the face of last week's subway alert. But we still accept the closure of the whole of Penn Station because of a suspicious can of soda. We're reorganizing our lives around fear and safety."

Antonelli, however, argues that feeling safe, like eating and sleeping, is one of our biggest basic priorities.

"Not in a paranoid way, but in a more everyday, mundane way," she says. "This exhibition is not about fear of terrorism or hurricanes, it's about objects that make you feel more comfortable."

And she thinks everyone who visits will see something that reflects their own experiences - from the Bengali immigrant who knows the importance of clean water, to the Upper West Side ladies who want to get hold of a pack of the special plasters that help heal Manolo and Choo blisters.

As far as New York design commentator RitaSue Siegel is concerned, it's an important collection, however far-fetched some of it might be.

Take the ballistic rose brooch. It may sound like a fashion accessory for only the most fearful among us (and it retails at $175), but as far as Siegel is concerned, it's still an impressive piece of work: "She's connecting design with peoples' lives - it's real life design - it's accessible and understandable. Go see this show - it'll make you think!"

Aren't these designers just pandering to our paranoia? Siegel doesn't think so. After all, she says, New York is a very safe city: "I don't walk around being paranoid, does anybody?"

Anyway, she says, "even if you never find yourself needing these things, it's good to know they're available."

Even Miller thinks there is some clever work here - he's especially excited about the T-shirt that's also a motherboard.

"It was commissioned by the military, but it's got fantastic potential to improve all our lives," he says.

Safe: Design Takes on Risk opens tomorrow and runs until Jan. 2 at MoMA. Admission is $20.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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