NEW YORK — When it comes to the design of homes and interiors, ideas can have surprising origins.
The origins of Modernism's spare functionalism can be traced to housing solutions created to solve Europe's severe housing crisis in the aftermath of World War I. And once-radical concepts like open flow plans, Pyrex glassware and linoleum flooring were initially designed for corporate or industrial settings.
A contemporary example of that flow of ideas from crisis to general use is Pritzker Architecture Prize recipient Shigeru Ban's use of thick paper tubes in the quick and efficient construction of temporary housing for disaster victims. The tubes have also been employed by Ban to build innovative museums, churches and other structures around the world.
In the other direction, IKEA's expertise in inexpensive flat-packed furniture has been applied to shelters, which can be rapidly and cheaply transported around the world and assembled — and disassembled — within a matter of hours.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art invites visitors to take an entirely new look at the concept of home and design, this time through the lens of migration and global refugee emergencies, in which temporary shelters, organizers say, are being deployed on a scale akin to that after World War I.
The exhibit “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” on view through Jan. 22, brings together both artists' ideas of home and what it represents and also a range of designs of shelters and refugee settlements.
“These shelters and camps are, in reality quasi-permanent,” said Sean Anderson, associate curator in MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, who organized the show with Ariele Dionne-Krosnick. Shelters are de facto homes to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, Anderson points out, and the average time a displaced person remains in such a situation is over 20 years — longer than many people remain in one home.
The exhibit is divided into sections on borders, shelters as a conceptual as well as built phenomena, and settlements, and features a Better Shelter structure, designed by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation, to give a sense of one type of structure many displaced people call home.
It also includes examples of designs meant to help displaced peoples, including a UNICEF “School-in-a-Box,” containing materials needed to set up a makeshift school for about 80 students, and “Adolescent Kits for Expression and Innovation,” featuring plastic boxes filled with colored markers and other craft materials.
“A refugee settlement is a reality where ingenuity and repurposing of resources is brought to the max, and the values and use of technologies are accelerated,” explained Marte Terne, head of marketing and communication for the Sweden-based Better Shelter .
Explaining the way the minimalist temporary housing structures evolve once in use, she said: “Textiles and rugs are used to make the space cozier and softer, personal items are hung up on the walls, a television is in and certain corners or areas are dedicated to specific tasks or storing of certain items.. A home emerges.”
The “Insecurities” exhibit is juxtaposed with a larger MoMA show “How Should We Live: Propositions for the Modern Interior,” one floor above it, which traces design solutions created to address Europe's post-World War I housing crisis to their eventual evolution into the streamlined functionalism what later became Modern design.
“We live in a highly interconnected world, and ideas move very fluidly and very quickly,” says Don Weinreich, a partner at the New York-based Ennead Architects, behind projects including William J. Clinton Presidential Center and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Weinreich and architect Eliza Montgomery also lead the award-winning Rethinking Refugee Communities, a collaboration between Ennead Lab, UNHCR and Stanford to design better settlements for displaced people.
“The difference between a shelter and a home has less to do with how long someone lives there and more to do with a resident's ability to personalize and modify their dwelling,” Weinreich says. “We design to create the conditions where a traumatized population has the opportunity to adapt the shelters that are provided to them. Including victims in design can contribute to the very complex process of healing.”
Unlike during the aftermath of World War I, these designs are employed in a range of cultures, as opposed to a situation in which Europeans were designing solutions for themselves that were designed from the start to be permanent.
“The trick is to find a balance and create something that's efficient and durable but also flexible enough so that the user can adapt it to the way they live,” Weinreich says. “Whether someone lives in a dwelling for two months or twenty years, it is a place humans live, and should provide a certain quality of life and be more than just a state of limbo.”