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Won't Shrink or Pill -- and Holds 50 Tons


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Won't Shrink or Pill -- and Holds 50 Tons



April 19, 2005; Page D8

New York

An exhibition devoted to "extreme" anything sounds like a crowd-pleaser and "Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance" at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum doesn't disappoint. A paean to the highly engineered textiles used in aerospace, medicine, sports, industry and the military, this unfocused, but entertaining show might have been subtitled "The Air and Space Museum Does New York," so crammed is it with sexy technology.

Want to see the prototype of the airbag system for the Mars Rover, the winged suit that allowed a man to glide across the English Channel, and a polyester sling that can lift 50 tons? Come on down. Matilda McQuaid, Exhibitions Curator and the Head of Textiles at the Cooper-Hewitt has assembled these, and 140 other wonders that demonstrate the centrality of textiles to contemporary life.

The show sets the stage for this revelation with a thumbnail exhibition of natural textiles through the ages (woven linen from fourth-century Egypt, 18th-century Spanish knitted silk, etc.) that illustrate traditional fabrication techniques -- knitting, weaving, braiding, etc. -- then brings us up to date. Thanks to polymers and other revolutionary man-made fibers, these same techniques now produce textiles that are more flexible, stronger, lighter and more versatile than ever before. Not only are these super textiles indispensable to a wide variety of technical endeavors, they may take such unusual and unexpected forms that we fail to recognize them. It takes a few minutes to realize that everything in this portion of the exhibition, including a length of knitted stainless steel, a set of precision gears and cogwheels, and a massive cross section of rope wide enough to sit on, is made of textiles. When it sinks in, it's quite a "Wow" moment that effectively makes the show's point.

But having focused our attention on the wonders of textiles, the exhibition fails to keep it there. It's hard to tell a compelling story about an abstract, technical topic, but "Extreme Textiles" doesn't even try. The rest of the show is simply a catalog of examples, organized into categories labeled "faster," "smarter," "lighter," "stronger," and "safer" (indicating the improvements made possible by textiles) and put on display. We are given no recent historical context -- the technological revolution created by the first man-made fibers, rayon and nylon, is barely mentioned -- and the show doesn't make the human connections that would keep its message front and center. Today's super textiles have certainly facilitated missions to space, won America's Cup races and contributed to medical miracles, but we don't hear about them. The wall copy is soporific and appears to have been written for a team of engineers from Dupont ("Carbon fiber composite is formed by passing raw strands of material through a resin impregnation bath..."). No wonder visitors soon stop marveling that all of these futuristic prototypes, space suits, cars, boats and sporting goods are made of textiles, and start gawking at all of the cool stuff.


This electrospun mask is made of polyethylene-oxide, nanofibers that are 1/100,000 of the width of a human hair.

Like the Skyray Rigid Wing Suit: You can strap on this baby, jump off a cliff, and soar for miles at speeds of up to 137 miles per hour. For shorter flights, there's the Atair Flexible Wing Suit that turns a human body into a combination of seabird and superglider. (A video of these two birdman outfits in action is one of the highlights of the show.) A suit made with nanotechnology -- polyethylene-oxide fibers 1/100,000 of the breadth of a human hair (illustrated here with an electrospun nanofiber mask of a human face) -- may not be as much fun, but it could come in handy some day soon. Material made with those tiny fibers can filter out harmful chemicals while allowing the wearer to breathe. Don't forget to check out the Sensewear Patch -- an unassuming adhesive strip that can upload and process information about your heart rate, temperature, and caloric intake and send it to your doctor's computer.

Everybody loves to look at space suits, especially if they have actually been out there in the void. There are several of them here, including the pressure suit, helmet and gloves worn by Charles "Pete" Conrad aboard Skylab 2 in 1973, and the version worn by Shannon Lucid aboard the Russian Mir Space Station in 1996. Technical apparatus commonly used here on earth, but rarely seen up close -- inflatable orange oil-slick containment booms, ropes used by arborists that can slide easily over bark, giant shipping containers that can hold 4,400 pounds of almost anything -- have their own quirky appeal and, sometimes, unexpected beauty. Decorators may soon be trying to buy ten yards of Palmhive bobble camouflage net, an intricately textured fabric developed by the Brits to disguise their military equipment.

The show's toy quotient is also blissfully high. The WilliamsF1 BMW FW 26 racing car is a testosterone-fueled dream -- your favorite Matchbox car big as life, low slung, gleaming blue and white, and ready to roll. The fiberglass Axis Recurve Bow, a traditionally shaped crossbow made out of fiberglass and used for Olympic archery tournaments, is both retro and futuristic -- something Robin Hood would use in a galaxy far, far away. The impossibly long and slim Lightweight Advantage Single Shell (a rowing scull) -- perfectly proportioned and beautifully finished with fine satin weave fabric -- is a true work of art, and not even a lengthy description of its components -- laminates and aramid fibers -- can keep you from enjoying the sight of the Vanguard Vector, a sleek racing dinghy, displayed fully rigged.

Installation of these bulky, high-tech goodies in the dark, domestically sized spaces of the Cooper-Hewitt -- a prim Beaux Arts mansion built by Andrew Carnegie in 1902 -- was obviously a nightmare for the designers of "Extreme Textiles." (A proposed $75 million addition of 22,000 square feet of underground exhibition space would alleviate this problem.) Meanwhile, the curators have done their best: The sailboat is wedged into Mr. Carnegie's elegant, leaded glass conservatory and the racing car has been parked at the bottom of his grand, paneled staircase. Go take a look. While this won't be the best museum exhibition you'll see this year, its bound to be the most fun.

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