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Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure
By Paola Antonelli -

There is nothing closer to the big bang of design, to its prime reason to exist, than objects that deal with self-preservation. Created to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful situations, convey information, promote awareness, and provide a sense of comfort and security, these objects offer not only efficiency and reliability, but also grace under pressure. Whether they are injection-molded with advanced materials or assembled with found parts and powered by a hand crank, they are arresting. Recently, a number of essays have appeared on the aesthetics of safety and surveillance.1 They cite armor and the fortress as metaphors for human response in the age of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Pressure is around every corner, and human resilience necessary for survival can be surprising.
Such resilience reminds us of how powerful we can be. How safe we are depends on our perception of what is at hand to protect us. We may bristle at the exquisiteness of these morbidly attractive tools for emergency situations because we do not have any overpowering need to use them. They allow us to embrace our fears.
Safety is an instinctive need that has guided human choices throughout history. Like love, it is a universal feeling and, as such, has inspired endless analytical thinking and motivated science, literature, religion, and art. On our sleeves we wear not only our hearts but also big red panic buttons. As often happens with basic tenets of human nature, no definition of safety can be more powerful than the one each of us carries inside. In the interest of discourse, however, at least one interpretation can prove useful. The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs,2 for example, is a five-layer model of psychological behavior, developed around the middle of the twentieth century. It places the need for safety second only to the need for food, water, shelter, warmth, and sex. Safety here means security, stability, and freedom from fear. After safety comes the need to...

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