Journal of History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Interviews & Reviews

Curating Crises: A Conversation with Ellen Lupton & Julie Pastor about Design and Epidemics

Elizabeth Sanders

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics is an exhibition opening at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in December 2021 curated by MASS Design Group in collaboration with Cooper Hewitt. The show explores how COVID-19 marks a new era of design and life. Epidemics trigger the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease, leading to lasting changes in hospitals, homes, workplaces, and cities. Long-term consequences of the pandemic include the redesign of personal space, protective clothing, home- and community-based health care, building ventilation, assisted breathing devices, and public health communication. The exhibition celebrates practical solutions, experimental prototypes, and community action.

Since August 2020, I have been working as a curatorial fellow for the exhibition. I spoke with Ellen Lupton and Julie Pastor in January 2021 about their research for the fifth issue of Objective. The project demonstrates the importance of contemporary curating by offering insight into the cultural and social upheaval that is the coronavirus pandemic.   

Elizabeth Sanders: Before Design and Epidemics became an exhibition project, it was a book that was co-authored by you, Ellen, and Dr. Bon Ku. What drew you to the concept of health care design?  

Ellen Lupton: Part of my interest as a curator has been design for accessibility and design for embodiment in general. Our exhibition in 2018, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, was a great example of bringing together design for accessibility and a broader interest in human experience. I also curated an exhibition in 2014 called Beautiful Users about the history of the user as the object of design. 

Book cover of Health Design Thinking, which depicts a doodle of a person made from a stethoscope.

Fig 1. Ellen Lupton and Dr. Bon Ku, Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health, MIT Press, Boston, 2020. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

I met the amazing Dr. Bon Ku because we were on a panel together, and he was literally walking around and had in his backpack two copies of my books. I had just been talking to Cara McCarty, Cooper Hewitt’s former curatorial director, about doing a health care-related project, and Dr. Ku said, “I really want to do a book about health design.” And I said, “Well, let’s do it!”

Cooper Hewitt very graciously supported the book. With the advocacy of our publisher, Pamela Horn, and the support of the director and curatorial director, they said, “Okay, you can publish this book,” and then that mushroomed into: “Why don’t we do a show?”  

Dr. Bon Ku is magically charismatic, and people are just drawn to him. He is an incredible collaborator and incredibly generous. He is modest even though he is a star in his field, and you just can’t help but want to do things with this guy—he’s really talented.

ES: The publication of the book Health Design Thinking happened to coincide with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically at a time when New York City was beginning to be shut down by the virus. Could you speak to how the exhibition changed in response to the novel coronavirus and its ensuing pandemic? 

EL: We had already decided to do an exhibition and, in fact, had already begun collaborating with MASS Design Group, who are leading experts in design and health care, specifically architectural design. We were deep into designing a narrative for the exhibition that was going to be about the human lifespan. Birth, crisis, wellness, and aging were the categories, and I thought it was a good idea as it was fun and optimistic but also reflective. A lot of my interests were included in the aging part, which was about design for disability. However, when COVID struck, we all felt that we needed to change the exhibition and address what was happening right at the moment.

ES: How has curatorial work changed since the pandemic? 

Julie Pastor: In general, it allowed us to collaborate in new ways through shared digital tools and by having wonderful Zoom interviews with designers in their studios. Being remote allows for exciting insights into so many processes early on that have crucially informed our understanding and helped shape the narrative.

This period of working remotely also created opportunities for Cooper Hewitt staff to experiment with new programmatic ideas, new initiatives, and new ways of thinking about how we wanted to respond to the pandemic. It allowed us to assess what we were doing that was already good and what more we might want to do. The museum’s Responsive Collecting Initiative grew out of a desire to capture design coming out of this moment. 

We’re also allowing ourselves to be flexible. We’re not sure when the museum will reopen or what is going to happen next. We need to lock in an exhibition narrative to move us toward a deadline, but we also need to allow space for new ideas or stories to tell within the physical exhibition or online. 

ES: MASS Design Group, who are the co-curators and exhibition designers of Design and Epidemics, won a National Design Award because of their dedication to design as a tool for education and their contributions to social justice. How will MASS shape the gallery space, and what has it been like to collaborate with them? 

EL: Working with MASS Design Group as curators and exhibition designers is an unusual setup for Cooper Hewitt, but there is a long history of this sort of collaboration, going back to Herbert Bayer creating the Bauhaus show in 1939. It brings up the idea that the content and design of an exhibition should be linked. We are a design museum and often we fail to see the link between content and design generation, so it is very exciting to be working with these experts who are not only amazing designers that create hospitals and spaces around the world, but who are also historians and critics of health design. 

It’s absolutely an incredible partnership for Cooper Hewitt. MASS Design Group is shaping the architecture and the space of the exhibition experience. It is really fascinating to have that content so closely paired with the expression and the built form of the exhibition. We’re also working with Rick Valicenti, another National Design Award winner, who is really one of the great graphic designers of our time. It’s really a dream team, and, in my view, what Cooper Hewitt should be doing—which is collaborating with designers, not just hiring designers or featuring their products on a shelf but creatively mind-melding with them.  

JP: It also shakes up the way we tell a story and the way we think about what we might prioritize. It forces some creativity and opens us to new ideas. MASS are such experts in this field, and they bring vast historical knowledge as well as their expertise in contemporary architecture. It’s very exciting. 

ES: In relation to COVID-19, a constant monitoring of the body is paramount to stopping the spread of the virus, which is translated in the act of social distancing or by creating hyperawareness about one’s body and its potential to contract or spread the virus. Could you speak to a project in the show that enhances bodily awareness? 

An empty plaza with white squares painted on the ground, arranged in a grid distanced apart.

Fig. 2 Caret Studio, StoDistante, installation to encourage social distancing in Piazza Giotto, Florence, Italy, 2020. Courtesy of Caret Studio.

EL: There are an uncountable number of projects addressing this issue. They’re ephemeral and handmade, some created by designers and others that are more vernacular individual responses.

One of the examples of social distancing that we chose for the exhibition is a project done by a group of architects in Northern Italy that transformed how people could experience their town during the first wave of the epidemic as well as future waves. 

It’s a beautiful project; it’s poetic and consists of painting out a grid of squares into the Renaissance Plaza of Vecchio, which is near Florence. The painted squares trigger the body, reminding people to stay apart from each other but at the same time inviting them into the plaza itself, thereby subverting isolation. The best social distancing graphics achieve that. They are temporary and they allow people to be out in public and share space safely. 

 ES: What are some of the technologies that are being exhibited in the show that readers might be less familiar with? How do they respond to the current health crisis? 

JP: Remote monitoring and telehealth are major pillars in the future of thinking about health care, and we’ll include several examples of these designs in the exhibition’s introductory gallery. There are now wearable, affordable devices that go further than counting your steps to collect useful medical data that can be shared with health care providers for early detection of disease. Preventive care is a huge problem, and these devices can help combat that. 

ES: The COVID-19 pandemic is a story that is constantly unfolding. How do curators accommodate a narrative that is constantly in flux, specifically in relation to technology that comes out of the pandemic?

EL: It’s really like journalism. Museum curators are used to spending five years on a museum exhibition and looking back retrospectively. This is an exhibition that is looking at what’s happening right now and trying to anticipate what’s going to happen in the next few months. 

I attended a symposium in December 2020 about health design and COVID, and the conversation was exclusively about the vaccine. All of the things that we’d been focused on—like masks, social distancing, ventilators, remote monitoring of the body—were no longer what the story was. 

The story was how to combat distrust of the vaccine, and that is a huge public health information challenge that hopefully our nation and the world can rise to. Vaccines don’t prevent illness. Vaccination prevents illness, and if people don’t get vaccinated then it doesn’t matter how many vaccines are developed. We need to now make space for this in the exhibition. I think many people thought the vaccine would be the solution, but the vaccine creates other design problems. 

ES: This speaks to another theme in the show, which is that of the racial pandemic that occurred alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. An article in Time magazine recently examined the decades of medical mistreatment toward people of color in the United States, specifically among the Black population. The effects of this history of medical abuse among minority communities have culminated in distrust of COVID vaccines that have been developed and approved so quickly. What sort of information or objects will be included in the show that speak to the massive reckoning that was led by Black Lives Matter?

JP: This is a crucial part of the story. In many ways, it could be a whole other exhibition. To begin to tell that story in this space, we’re planning to include Black Lives Matter posters and masks. 

EL: Data graphics are also really interesting. They are the window into the racial inequality and health care outcomes, and so they are an important aspect of the exhibition. Data graphics don’t just tell the facts of what happened, but they are used in predictive ways. They are used to create policy; they are used to reveal problems like racial disparity. They are a tool of knowledge, and they are not just retrospective. The people tracking these numbers, mapping them, and visualizing them are frontlines workers who have contributed to COVID design. 

ES: In relation to the exhibition, how does design play a role in social justice? 

EL: It’s vast, and, really, I think the question could also be how it plays a role in social injustice. Much of racial injustice is linked to segregated housing, and this is fundamental to the design of our cities. Maps show the concentration of populations in certain neighborhoods, which demonstrates the lack of social mobility. Housing of people in certain districts of the city has always caused disease, which is linked to what is happening now. That’s how systemic racism is seen in these graphics, but how is it fought? Well, there are protests, there’s policy change, and there are institutions and individuals becoming aware of their roles in perpetuating injustice. From a design point of view, some of that is communication design—activism—but some of it has to be redesigning how and where people live.

ES: Many of the stories that are being exhibited derive from individuals or small businesses. Is there a specific object that comes to mind when thinking about the ways in which individuals have helped flatten the curve or addressed an ongoing problem in health care? 

EL: Many of the masks are developed by individuals and entrepreneurs. We have a situation in which the industrial health establishment was unable and continues to be unable to provide basic supplies to health care workers and the public. Therefore, individuals in the face of systemic failure jumped in and created networks for distributing supplies and created new ways of manufacturing supplies with open-source designs that could be produced locally in different communities. Masks were an example of that, but also more esoteric medical supplies were derived, such as a valve that was designed and engineered in Northern Italy that allows a snorkel mask to be transformed into an oxygen-enhancing or oxygen-delivery method. By making that design open source, the solution could be implemented all over the world.

A person wearing a white scuba mask with a yellow valve on top.

Fig. 3 3D-printed valve that attaches onto a snorkeling mask, transforming the mask into a ventilator for COVID-19 treatment. Isinnova and Dr. Renato Favero, Charlotte Valve, Italy, 2020. Courtesy of Isinnova.

JP: Individuals have often been the source of innovation. People who would have never touched health care design have been involving themselves in new ways to respond to this crisis, and I think it’s important that they do. Health care design may not be as sexy as other kinds of product design, but it’s become more significant than ever. 

I’m thinking about Eric Höweler, who is part of a large creative team behind the design of a patient isolation hood that protects anesthesiologists when they’re intubating COVID patients. Höweler is an architect, and the architecture that he’s been developing is now on the scale of the human body. Through digital tools, he and others have opened collaboration from experts across a wide range of disciplines that wasn’t necessarily happening before. 

There’s been more of a free exchange of ideas, and I’m hopeful that it will affect how design processes move forward in the future. It will be interesting to see how the speed of design and the innovations that were developed during this time will impact health care design in the long term. 

ES: One gallery in the exhibition considers the relationship between health and ecological forces. Could you speak to the various historical connections you are making to the coronavirus?

EL: This concept really came from MASS: to look at how responses to epidemics have triggered changes in the design of health care spaces and how they’ve also had a broader impact on public and domestic design, urban design, and urban systems. 

MASS have chosen to look at tuberculosis, which is well known for the use of light as a treatment for the disease. In the early twentieth century, modern architects changed their approach to designing buildings to incorporate natural light, balconies, and breezeways.  

Malaria as a threat to public health created design strategies to protect people from bugs with nets and screened doors. That’s really significant because it’s about how to safely ventilate a space. If you don’t have screens on your windows, then you probably don’t open them in the summer, which means you rely on air conditioning. As the twentieth century progressed, air conditioning increasingly became the norm. People just didn’t open their windows. That’s now a problem for COVID because opening your windows is very important for getting the disease out. These things are beautifully interconnected.

Cholera is caused by contaminated water. MASS designed an incredible cholera treatment clinic in Haiti after the earthquake. The errors made by public health experts caused a horrific outbreak of disease there. MASS’s facility not only provides a humane place for people to recover from this illness, but it also incorporates its own water treatment system since the city’s water structure is compromised. Creating a clinic that cleans its own wastewater and incoming water is genius. The identification of cholera and how it is transmitted has had a big influence on modern city sewage systems. Disease impacts the entire landscape we live in. 

ES: Is there a specific object that you are excited about being in the show?  

JP: We’re excited about the ventilators. We’re hoping to display Shaash, a new version of the iron lung designed and manufactured in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi designers shared data with Exovent, a volunteer organization in the UK working to revive the iron lung, and each group designed a different negative-pressure ventilator using local design expertise and materials. It’s an interesting example of creative collaboration. Modernizing a device that was widely used during the polio epidemic offers new applications to treat disease, especially in places like Bangladesh where many people die from illnesses related to air pollution. 

ES: The show will be accompanied by an exhibition channel on the Cooper Hewitt website. What do you hope to translate online?

EL: I want the website to be a deep repository of information that documents this extraordinary time in history. There’s so much that we cannot put in the show, like these interviews with designers, and I would like a place for it to live and to be preserved. It’s not so much for people to look at in 2021 but for people to look at in 2031. Often, we don’t think of what we are doing as being future-looking as we focus on whatever is happening in a given month—but we need to tell this story for the future.

Note from the Editors: As of June 10, 2021, Cooper Hewitt is open to the public

Elizabeth Sanders (she, her, hers)

is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies MA program offered jointly by Parsons School of Design and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is currently a fellow of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt and is working on the upcoming exhibition, Design and Epidemics: Creativity Responds to Crisis.