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The dark, violent side of design

Marisa Vasquez. Courtesy of Defense Distributed
A menace in 3D.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Design is a double-edged sword, as the ongoing debate on 3D-printed gun legislation reminds us. Even as designed objects, systems, and buildings have enhanced and prolonged our lives, design (and designers) also aid, abet and enable great acts of violence to mankind and the planet.

Courtesy of MoMA

MoMA curator Paola Antonelli says it’s time to take a hard look at that aspect of the field: “Design needs a thorough reality check,” she says. “From buildings and clothing to toasters, posters, and cities, too often and naïvely…[we] only celebrate the positive impact that design artifacts have on our everyday experiences. However, design also has a history of violence that, unless linked overtly to political and social suppression and upheaval, often goes unexplored.”

To remedy that, Antonelli and the Parsons professor Jamer Hunt have co-curated an experimental initiative at MoMA called “Design and Violence,” to create a dialogue about the shadowy side of design.

Over the course of 18 months, they have invited experts, writers, scientists, and philosophers to reflect upon and debate the status of objects, systems, and environments that lead to gnarly and important ethical junctions for the future of design.

From everyday objects to speculative projects that limn gray zones, here’s a sampling of the project’s thought-provoking interrogation, excerpted from the exhibition’s new book.

The 3D-printed gun

Is there such a thing as the right to violence?

Defense Distributed, a Texas-based non-profit group, was formed with the goal of creating a firearm that anyone could fabricate using a 3-D printer. Invoking civil liberties and challenging notions of gun control and perceptions of information censorship, they created a block-like polymer .380 caliber gun printed in 16 pieces, now known as ‘The Liberator.’ The 3-D weapon’s fabrication files were immediately made available online and have been downloaded over 100,000 times.

Lorenza Baroncelli. Courtesy of Defense Distributed
3D printed gun parts.

The box cutter

What other every day objects can become lethal weapons?

The protective handle for a single-edged razor blade, now known colloquially as a box cutter, is believed to have originated in the 1920s as a hand tool, derived from much earlier utility knives and straight razor blades. These types of blades became notorious in the early 21st century, when it was revealed that they may have been used by the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, as stated by the 9/11 Commission Report.

Jamer Hunt
Box cutter

Plastic handcuffs and the bite/spit mask

Protection, humiliation or both?

As with any kind of restraint, comfort is not always the priority; these cuffs fasten tightly against the wrist and thus require skill to apply without creating unintended harm to the subject. Plastic cuffs are preferred in part due to their disposability, thus eliminating concerns about sanitation associated with reusing metal restraints.

Jamer Hunt
Plastic cuffs.

Concerns about transmittable and infectious disease have also led to the rising use of bite/spit masks, which create a protective buffer for law enforcement officers and medical professionals when aiding hostile patients. Like plastic handcuffs, these masks can be used as a way to control non-compliant inmates. These masks also require careful and proper application to be truly safe, and human-rights activists have criticized their (mis)use.

Jamer Hunt
Anti-bite/spit mask.

The euthanasia roller coaster

Is euthanasia a form of violence or a form of compassion?

Between 2003 and 2007, designer and engineer Julijonas Urbonas ran an amusement park in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and garnered first-hand experience in crafting situations that involve “gravitational aesthetics.” Urbonas created the hypothetical Euthanasia Coaster as—in his words—a humane, elegant, and euphoric solution for those who have chosen to end their lives.

Julijonas Urbonas
Coast to death.

Challenging the physical and psychological limits of the human body, this speculative design is intended to slowly ascend 510 meters (roughly 1,700 feet) into the air before launching passengers down seven loops at a mind-boggling speed of 100m/s. The roller coaster aims to give its riders a diverse range of experiences from euphoria to thrill, tunnel vision to a loss of consciousness and, eventually, to the end result: death.

The stiletto

 Is the stiletto heel modern woman’s most lethal social weapon?

The stiletto heel—named after the slender Italian dagger of the Renaissance—first appeared in the 1930s. The inventor of this long, often steel-spiked, thin heel remains in dispute, but today many attribute its rise in fame to Roger Vivier’s work for Christian Dior in the early 1950s. The stiletto has woven its way in and out of fashion history, but remains a highly charged symbol of sexuality, aggressiveness, and fetishism.

Creative commons / Xingbo
Killer heels.


What other secretive acts carried out in behalf of the public need to be made more visible?

The Drone Shadow project [by James Bridle] makes the impact of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) visible at a 1:1 scale. The purpose of a drone is to be invisible, making the operators completely unaccountable for their actions.

James Bridle
Drone shadows.

Video games

Does violence in video games have a correlation IRL or are they unrelated?

Electronic gaming has been connected to violence ever since the earliest “interactive electronic games,” designed in the late 1940s to simulate World War II missile drops, were played on cathode ray tubes. However, the stakes, design, and interactivity of such games has evolved radically. Enter Salty Bet (created by a designer who goes only by the name of Salty), a free game that allows players to place virtual bets on live competitive fights between (often wildly mismatched) video game characters.

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