8 min read

By Thomas Wagner.

For centuries, the people of Japan have lived in constant awareness that the harmonious order of their everyday lives could be disrupted at any moment. The „Disaster Design“ exhibition in Darmstadt presents around 150 products used in prevention and evacuation measures as well as in emergency shelters. They are displayed together with the work of students from Japan and Germany.

When disaster strikes, it gives no warning. From out of nowhere, a sudden turning of the tide gives rise to something devastating and unstoppable – an image conjured up by the poet Wondratschek in Black Serenade (Schwarze Serenade): “It was so nice just a moment before/ Now cracks are appearing in the floor.” No other country is more experienced in the sudden shift from certainty to disaster than Japan. The archipelago is located in a geologically very unstable part of the Earth, where continental plates collide and there are more than a hundred active volcanoes. Under these conditions, the country is constantly faced with the looming threat of natural disasters. No other industrialised nation has experienced so many disastrous earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, typhoons, heavy snowfalls and volcanic eruptions. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 alone claimed 140,000 lives and reduced Tokyo to rubble. And yet it only took seven years to rebuild the city.

Disasters are an integral part of everyday life and culture

The Japanese do not live in vague fear of a potential disaster that may never transpire. They are constantly subjected to the real presence of disaster. They go about their daily business knowing full well that disasters loom on the horizon, and the emergency plans that have been put in place firmly anchor this awareness in the very fabric of their society. Consequently, disasters have had a major influence on the country’s cultural development. But how, in practice, do you deal with something that will inevitably tear apart the usual order and turn everything on its head from one minute to the next?

Around 150 products used for prevention, evacuation and in emergency shelters in Japan will be on display in the “Disaster Design” exhibition at the Designhaus Darmstadt until 15 March 2020. The exhibition draws attention to how these products are designed, and how they can be used in a private or public context. The products are complemented with designs by students from Kyushu University Fukuoka and the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. Created in the summer semester of 2019 as part of a joint project, these works illustrate the students’ approach to the topic “Disaster Design”.

View of the “Evacuation” section with various foldable helmets, an emergency stretcher made from cardboard and a poncho for mother and child. Photo: Tino Melzer

Exhibition in Darmstadt: In the Disaster Centre

When visiting Japan, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a whole industry which revolves around disasters. The villa on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt has been turned into a kind of temporary “disaster centre”. The entrance opens onto a dark corridor, with all the windows shut, partly barricaded by crates of black-stained construction panels. The visitor is cut off from the outside world, normal life is left at the door. The same dark panels used for the windows are used to create Tatami mats which form a contrasting display base, enhancing the visual impact of the often brightly coloured objects placed on them. The floor tape guide directs visitors through the various phases of a disaster, from preparation and evacuation to the restoration of normality. Visitors can also carry a clipboard with them and tick objects they see in the tour which they would like to know more about.

Once again Prof. Tino Melzer, who teaches industrial design, design and ergonomics at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences and is responsible for organising the exhibition, has pulled off an amazing feat with this collection which he has put together with such meticulous detail. The sheer variety of products from such a wide range of sectors is astounding, both in terms of their functionally and design. Some exhibit sophisticated design concepts, while others are full of surprises when it comes to their intended use. And, of course, there are the objects based on tradition, and those that appear unusual or mysterious.

Emergency kit, foldable helmet and fire extinguishing ball

There is a card game to help people train for disasters. The design agency Nosigner has created an emergency manual full of practical ideas. There are various safety catches for furniture, and anti-roll locks to prevent devices such as copiers from flying through the room like projectiles in the event of an earthquake. A red ball that drops down during a tremor activates a switch that interrupts the power supply. An emergency kit in the shape of a backpack can also be used as a stool. When the backrest is unlocked, what at first looks like a strange chair turns out to be a protective helmet with a back shield. And what you’re supposed to do with the fire extinguishing ball only becomes clear when Tino Melzer explains: it is shaped like a baseball as a hint that it should be thrown into the fire with all one’s might.

There are graphically designed food rations, a life jacket for dogs, portable toilets and numerous whistles, hand crank torches and radios. Plus, one of the highlights, there are foldable or hinged helmets in every imaginable shape and colour. The message comes through loud and clear: the Japanese prepare as best they can for what is to come. They face the risk humbly, but also with great confidence and admirable willpower.

The students’ work is cleverly interspersed with the products from Japan, ranging from compact utensils such as a pen, lamp, stamp, toothbrush or pill compartment through to a foldable shelter to protect against falling debris, a heat shield for firefighting, or even a cardboard U Space that provides a little privacy in emergency shelters.

Historical and mythological contexts

However, the show does not seek merely to display design objects, many of which seem strange and unusual when viewed in a normal, non-emergency situation. It also places these objects within the historical context from which they evolved and conveys the myths that explain what triggers the disasters. In this respect, it offers something pleasingly different from the usual parade of products. For example, besides the various foldable helmets on display, there is also a heavy jacket with a hood, knitted from several layers of cotton soaked in water.

Firefighters (Jobikeshi) from the Edo period and the Meiji era wore this protective clothing, together with sock-like footwear, gloves and trousers. Woodblock prints, created as a direct satirical response to the Ansei Edo quake of 1855, illustrate how mythical explanations are anchored in the collective consciousness, and still resonate to this day.

When the giant catfish thrashes its tail

According to the mythology of the Edo period, Namazu, a giant catfish that lives under the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku, is responsible for causing the earthquakes. Usually, the warrior god Kashima keeps him weighed down with a large stone. But if the god is distracted or absent, Namazu coils himself round and thrashes his tail vigorously from side to side, making the earth shake. But the catfish beneath the water did not only bring destruction, suffering and despair, it also represented the renewal of the world and the redistribution of wealth, since the houses of the wealthy were not spared from the effects of the quake – in fact, it was predominantly the poorer builders who benefited from the catastrophe.

The woodblock prints known as Namazu-e show the catfish in human form in a wide variety of roles and situations: beaten, tied up, warning, commanding, but also helping. Even today the catfish is associated with earthquakes in Japan, and evacuation routes feature images of Namazu.

Pragmatism instead of pathos

The exhibition successfully conveys a broad topic, and explains it clearly using a lot of small objects. By showing the pragmatism of the Japanese and how this is rooted in their history and mythology, the exhibition highlights the contrast between their composed approach to catastrophe and the false pathos usually depicted in the disaster stories of American superhero films. In Japan anyone can be the hero triumphing over disaster, provided they are well prepared and have the right equipment.

Protection and safety are fundamental and universal basic human needs. Not only does this exhibition make it fun to discover what all the objects on display are used to prepare for, what they protect people from, how they provide essentials in a disaster situation and how they seek to smooth the way from a state of emergency back to normality, it also makes it clear that design plays a vitally important role. The objects tell a story full of tragedy and pain which has not yet happened, but which is firmly present in people’s lives. Ultimately, disaster can be interpreted as an event that one hopes will not transpire. Nevertheless, many of the objects from the Disaster Design toolbox can also be of great use in other scenarios, such as camping.

View of the “After the Disaster” section. Photo: Tino Melzer

Disaster Design Exhibition

Designhaus Darmstadt, Eugen-Bracht-Weg 6
Open until 15 March 2020
Wednesday to Sunday, 12:00–17:00
Admission free.

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