‘Design and Healing’ Shows How Epidemics Lead to Innovation

Before I entered the Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibition, “Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics,” I wondered if the most emblematically museum-worthy object from Covid-19 would be a bloodstained hospital “gown” made up of trash bags and a shower cap.

That would sum up America’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic threat — and the ongoing failure of communities to learn from the horrors New York City endured through the early weeks of the virus’s spread. Caregivers bound by the Hippocratic oath are still being put at risk by the unmasked and the unvaccinated, who bind themselves to no oath to other people at all.

At the Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, visitors won’t see the most highly charged imagery of the pandemic, which is arguably appropriate at a time when we’re still living through Covid and the toll it extracts. But along with its curators, they may come to see this global emergency, like epidemics of the past, as a fount of extraordinary invention, enabling people to come together to solve problems in real time, blowing through bureaucratic barriers and old habits.

Innovation has been Covid’s silver lining. The exhibition shows how epidemic disease through history has shaped behavior, warfare, the form of buildings and the infrastructure of cities. Face masks, ventilators and tent hospitals are on view, but they gain considerable resonance from the rich historical context that is included.

These elements are the legacy of an earlier iteration of the exhibition, “Design and the Future of Health Care,” conceived before the pandemic — Covid demanded a pivot to what is now on view. It is organized by the Cooper Hewitt’s senior curator of contemporary design, Ellen Lupton, and the architect Michael Murphy, who leads the MASS Design Group, a Boston-based nonprofit that has been on the epidemiology front lines for years. It has built facilities to help people recover from infectious diseases in some of the poorest and most conflict-prone places in the world, including Haiti and Rwanda. On Dec. 9, the American Institute of Architects announced MASS as the winner of its 2022 Architecture Firm Award, among its highest honors.

The exhibition is loosely based on themes: the curative qualities of light and air, the means by which viruses are spread and treatment innovation in hospitals and intensive care settings. The show’s initial theme is “Monitoring the Body,” introduced at the entry by a mannequin helmeted with sensors that the artist Samuel Stubblefield used on human subjects to generate a sound and light installation.

The exhibition’s through line is our fundamental need to breathe safe air. “Breathing is a spatial problem,” Murphy told me during a walk-through. We would not need to resort to a fixed six feet of social distance if we could only see and dodge viruses swirling around us.

Caret Studio, based in Florence, Italy, elegantly urges distancing by demarcating a piazza in Vicchio in a checked tablecloth pattern, called “StoDistante.” In New York, photographs by Jennifer Tobias document the hieroglyphic beauty of social distancing markers adhered to the city’s sidewalks: butterflies, hearts and colorful abstractions that the heels of countless passers-by are gradually erasing.

“Design and Healing” goes back to the 1850s, when the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale transformed battlefield medicine by recognizing that infectious diseases in field hospitals killed far more servicemen than their injuries did. At about the same time, physician John Snow mapped the distribution of a cholera outbreak in London. While authorities were blaming the slovenly habits of the poor for spreading the disease, Snow correlated that data with the areas served by private water supply companies, showing that contaminated water from a single pump was responsible for the outbreak.

Nightingale would take her battlefield insights to hospital design, which transformed the architecture of those buildings through the separation of clean and dirty air, along with sanitation and sunlight — hugely improving patient outcomes. Her legacy is found in the narrow, daylight-filled wings and sleek curving balconies of the supremely beautiful 1933 Paimio Sanatorium, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in Paimio, Finland. Those forms aided natural ventilation and captured healing rays of sunlight, cementing an image of European modern architecture as healthy and hygienic.

Thanks to Snow and others, the health of cities would be transformed by the provision of clean water and sanitary sewers. Later work by the new science of epidemiology would trace the source of diseases like tuberculosis and rickets to poor ventilation and lack of access to sunlight. Though not covered in the exhibition, those insights led New York to ban dim, airless tenements and mandate light courts and “wedding cake” building setbacks to deliver sunlight and breezes to streets and yards.

“Design and Healing” shows how the MASS Design Group has brought the lessons learned by Nightingale and Snow into the 21st century via clinics for Gheskio in Haiti, where reliable clean water and power are lacking. A tuberculosis clinic channels natural airflow to patient rooms and a healing garden through handsome grillwork made by local artisans. The undulating roof of a cholera clinic harvests rainwater and draws in daylight. It cleans its contaminated sewage with an anaerobic reactor that sanitizes by biological means.

Of the uncountable masks that amateur sewers and professional garment makers have created to filter breath, the handful on view show elegant adaptations of turbans (designed by Timzy Batra) and hijabs (created by Halima Aden). The Icelandic artist Ýrúrarí produced a knit mask that is demonstrative if not especially effective: Two pink tongues emerge from gritted teeth and lipsticked lips and curl up as if to press the mask around the nose, a humorous acknowledgment of how inept people are — well, I am, anyway — at getting their masks to seal properly. Other masks express political views: One bearing the phrase “I can’t breathe” checks the anti-police-brutality box while underlining Covid’s frequent devastation of the lungs.

A photo of children’s tiny heads peering out from a tanklike iron lung much like the one displayed reminds me of how scared I was of polio as a kid, and why I was more than willing to get jabbed with the polio vaccine, which was widely regarded as a miracle in the late 1950s.

Yet those breathing-assistance machines, in a less monstrous-looking form, are making a comeback. The exhibition makes the case that the external pressure applied by new, more portable and less intimidating versions of the iron lung, such as Shaash, a negative-pressure ventilator on display here. It was designed and produced by the Bangladesh firm Karnaphuli Industries and is less damaging to the body than ventilators that require physically invasive intubation and sometimes long-term sedation.

Though many people use fitness-monitoring devices, the need to avoid contact with medical staff throughout the Covid-19 pandemic further broke down the taboo against sharing our most personal health information. Beginning with devices like thermometers and pulse oximeters, the market for information-capturing devices exploded. “Design and Healing” displays several sensors that monitor various bodily functions. The data they generate gives doctors and patients real-time information that can warn of dangerous medical episodes. Joanna Shulman, who was a consultant in digital health innovation in Tiburon, Calif., told me the era of behavior modification by such body sensors is nearly upon us — to treat substance abuse, aid weight loss, treat depression, you name it. The exhibition does not speak to the capabilities of the sensor technology it shows, so it cannot engage the knotty ethical quandaries innate to the use of the intimate information they collect.

A black poster with a pink triangle and the phrase “Silence = Death,” an iconic object from the early AIDS era, is also on display, perhaps to remind us that there is no equivalent call to Covid action today. Produced for ACT UP, the poster speaks to the urgency of activism in the starkest terms. The group spurred people to join in theatrically brazen protests that brought the AIDS epidemic’s toll to the doorsteps of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, which had been slow to respond (and confronted a then unknown official named Anthony Fauci). That so many people still resist protecting themselves and others through masking and vaccination is the signature communication failure of the Covid pandemic.

The modest “Design and Healing” can’t begin to capture the grieving that must be done over Covid’s enormous losses, nor the reckoning with our public and individual failures that must take place. It does helps us appreciate optimism amid hopelessness, and celebrates extraordinary accomplishments under duress. The long history of pandemic innovation gives us faith that we can still muddle through the Covid era and emerge a little better than we were going in.

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics

Through Feb. 20, 2023, at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., (212) 849-8400; cooperhewitt.org.