Entertainment & Arts

Column: Devising death: ‘Design & Violence’ portrays real tools of violence and they are chilling

The Liberator, a 3-D printed gun

‘Design and Violence,’ a book published by the Museum of Modern Art, looks at the ways in which human design can abet brutality. Seen here: a 3-D printed gun called ‘The Liberator.’

(Marisa Vasquez / MoMA)

When Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a holiday office party in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, they were armed with a veritable arsenal: a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 assault rifle, a DPMS Panther Arms assault rifle, a Springfield Armory 9mm handgun and a Llama 9mm handgun.

In the wake of the killings, there was lot of talk about where the killers may have bought their weapons. (The New York Times, for example, keeps a running tab on where mass shooters acquire their guns.) But there was little on their history or their design.

If you’re not a gun enthusiast, you may not know that the initials in the Smith & Wesson M&P, for example, stand for “Military and Police,” or that the gun, which has been in production for roughly a decade, can accommodate 10 to 30 rounds, and comes with a front and rear sight plus a chrome-lined barrel. The conclusion of the critic who reviewed it for “Modern Shooter” — who tested it out on prairie dogs in a field in Wyoming — was “get one.”

Panther Arms was founded in 1985 in Hunstville, Ala. and is now based in St. Cloud, Minn. The Springfield 9mm hails from the same armory that stored ammunition and gun carriages in the wake of the U.S. Revolutionary War — on the orders of George Washington.


And the Llama comes from a now defunct Spanish company, known officially as Llama-Gabilondo y Cia., which manufactured handguns for much of the 20th century. According to the Internet Movie Firearms Database (yes, there is such a thing), Clint Eastwood carried a version of a Llama gun in the 1993 Secret Service movie "In the Line of Fire.”

Beyond these cursory facts, it can be difficult to get design information. Who sat at the drawing board (or AutoCAD program) and devised the mechanics and aesthetics of these weapons? For whom and why? 

We may not immediately have the answers to those questions in the case of San Bernardino. But a book produced by Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli and design critic/professor Jamer Hunt gets at some of these issues in an intriguing way.

Design and Violence by MoMA Books

The book ‘Design and Violence,’ published by MoMA, began life as a blog spearheaded by senior curator Paola Antonelli. 



“Design and Violence” began life as a website — an essay platform and digital exhibition space. Launched in fall 2013, the project set out to catalog the history and nature of some of humanity’s most violent gadgets: who designed them and why; how they are employed and by whom.

There were dozens of entries — on AK-47s, bomb-dropping drones and eco-conscious bullets. The latter, known as the M855A1, employs copper instead of lead, avoiding the contamination of land and waterways when deployed.  Also included were art and design projects that addressed themes of violence in broad and imaginative ways.

Accompanying each post was an essay that reflected on the object’s significance. Tech writer Rob Walker wrote on the 3-D-printed gun known as “The Liberator.” The novelist Aminatta Forna explored how everyday vehicles are hacked and used in war. Theorist Steven Pinker wrote on the phenomenon of “Million Dollar Blocks,” a data mapping study that looks at how a disproportionate number of people in U.S. jails hail from a small number of low-income communities — communities where prison could be said to be the predominant governing institution.

This year, Antonelli and Hunt, with MoMA curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher, assembled roughly 40 entries on these macabre objects into “Design and Violence,” a handsome 232-page book that compiles these histories. Contained within is the photography — some of it elegantly done by Hunt — the essays and many of the more poignant comments the posts drew online. 

At a time of year in which critics are rounding up their design and architecture “best of” lists, the book is a stirring reminder that humans have a hand in some less than exalted areas of design. A common saying among designers is that “design won’t save the world.” The objects in “Design and Violence” make the case that we may be actively designing our way to inevitable destruction.

“Within the profession, voices that trumpet design’s commercial and aesthetic successes have dominated,” write Antonelli and Hunt in their foreword. “Design’s history of violence, unless linked overtly to political and social suppression, too often goes unexplored.”

Box cutters

‘Design and Violence,’ through photography and essays, looks at the origin of a variety of objects, some of which were intended for violent ends and others, such as box cutters, which have nonetheless served that purpose despite their non-lethal intended function.

(Jamer Hunt / MoMA)

The book, interestingly, opens with the banal. "Design and Violence” begins with the history of the simple box cutter — the tool of terror from 9/11. It is a device thought to have been derived from a combination of straight razors and utility knives at some point in the 1920s. It became a growing necessity in the early 20th century, when massive amounts of merchandise were moved in cardboard boxes.


“A traditional knife is an extension of the hand, cutting and shaping the materials pre-industrial humans consumed as food, wore as clothing, and constructed as shelter,” writes journalist John Hockenberry in his related essay. “The utility blade can do nothing in a world of hunters, builders, and farmers. The utility knife is invisible and useless in this traditional world, and yet the tribal postindustrial assault on boxes needed a sacred tool.”

Ninja Stars

Dating to the 11th century, ninja stars, part of a class of Japanese weapons known as shashuriken, were designed to be thrown in combat. 

(Daniel McMahon, Flickr Creative Commons / MoMA)

From there, "Design and Violence” goes on to feature guns (3-D printed and mass-produced), bullets and ninja stars — the small, circular Japanese throwing knives that date at least to the 11th century and are a staple of action flicks.

Known formally as shashuriken, these lethal objects likely became a part of global popular culture after being featured in films such as “Shinobi no Mono” (Ninja, a Band of Assasins), an eight-part Japanese film series from the 1960s.

There are entries in the book that look at forms of environmental violence (mountaintop removal mining techniques), digital violence (the Stuxnet virus) and animal violence (a specially designed ramp to lead cattle to slaughter). There is even an entry that sounds like it could do double duty as plots for the “Final Destination” movies.

Julijonas Urbonas Euthanasia Coaster

‘Design and Violence’ includes conceptual projects, such as this speculative drawing for a ‘Euthanasia Coaster’ designed by Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas. The ever-tighter concentric circles, combined with g-force acceleration, would lead the rider to unconsciousness and eventual death. 

(Julijonas Urbonas / MoMA)

That would be the theoretical roller coaster, conceived by Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas, which could conceivably euthanize its rider with G-force. The piece was originally presented by Urbonas as a work of sculpture at the Science Gallery in Dublin in 2011.

It is a morbid idea — one that the related essay describes as “preposterous” — but there is something seductive about it too: a rider loop-de-looping his way to eventual, euphoric annihilation. (Voluntarily, one hopes.)


“Design and Violence" contains other tongue-in-cheek entries as well. Among them: the stiletto heel, named for a slender Italian dagger from the Renaissance and used to “finish off a fallen knight by a thrust through chain mail or between plate armor.” The shoe first appeared on women’s feet in the 1930s and was popularized by designer Roger Vivier for Christian Dior in the 1950s.

“An upscale shoe department is a gun show for urban fashionistas,” writes critic Camille Paglia in her essay on the accessory, “a site of ritual display where danger lurks beneath the mask of beauty.”

Plastic handcuffs

Created by an unknown designer in the 1970s, plastic handcuffs or “flexicuffs” have been increasingly used by police during demonstrations and public disturbances. 

(Jamer Hunt / MoMA)

It is an intriguing reconsideration of a common piece of everyday fashion, an object whose very name bears notes of violence and whose impossible proportions are responsible for all manner of injuries to its wearers. (In its more extreme incarnations — say, anything by Christian Louboutin — the stiletto isn’t too far removed from the torturous ensembles of sci-fi: Jane Fonda’s bubble suit in “Barbarella” or Sting’s winged mankini from “Dune.”)

Certainly, “Design and Violence” is not the first media project to tackle the issue of lethal design in its pages. An essential 2013 report by Frances Anderton of KCRW’s “Design and Architecture,” for example, is an incisive look at the ways in which guns are designed and marketed.

But the book, in its clinical presentation of objects and concepts, takes us deep into the objects of ritual brutality. Flipping through the pages, these can come to seem almost unreal — like the fabrications of some far out invented world. Except that they are all too real. And in each of these pages, it is possible to see our own hand.

“Design and Violence” ($45), by Paola Antonelli, Jamer Hunt, with Michelle Millar Fisher, is available from MoMA Publications.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. Find Paola Antonelli @curiousoctopus.


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