That chair we sit in, that helmet we don, and even those cute earplugs we stuff in our ears — all of ‘em, folks, are the offspring of the mothers and fathers of invention who constantly seek and create solutions to the myriad problems life hurls at us. Design is not often a linear affair, as Born of Necessity, the sharp, witty, and not infrequently controversial, exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, pointedly claims. It’s all about problem-solving and scaring up future dilemmas that will need to be addressed and conquered.

Drawing from its own well-endowed collection, Necessity showcases a variety of objects, large, small, and in-between, representing traditional notions of design as tools for problem-solving, and each stands as a unique response to something urgent, foreseen, or imagined. But the show is as much about the problems themselves as it is about the creations devised to go up against them, examining such concerns as overpopulation, the challenges of the urban environment, medical emergencies, and natural disasters.

One of the most intriguing creations is the Eye Writer (2009). Through a TV monitor with two sets of headphones, visitors can see and listen to how the Eye Writer (a collaboration of Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, and Chris Sugrue) – made up of no more than a pair of thick black Clark Kent style eyeglasses plus wiring — enables graffiti writer Tempt I, totally paralyzed by ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) except for the ability to move his eyes, to “write” his graffiti tag onto a screen through those eye movements; the writings are in turn transmitted and projected wirelessly through a laptop and laser app onto a building wall several miles away.

The order of nuns known as the Poor Clares living in Kent, England, can keep up with issues needing prayer through the help of the sleek and unobtrusive Prayer Companion (2010). Called “Goldie” by the sisters, this maroon-colored object can be placed into the ground or attached to a wall, its scroll rolling out RSS news feeds. It keeps the prayers current and pertinent. Who says nuns aren’t hip?

“Look, Ma, no hands” combats coitus interruptus when the Condom Applicator is pressed into action. Designed by South African Roelf Mulder, this clever time-saving gadget dispenses a condom and fits it onto its user in three seconds, protecting said user from unhygienic handling.

The Safety Defensive Ring, a 2003 design of Amanda Knox, comes to the defense of any woman between whom and a potential attacker might only be a set of keys. When opened, the otherwise stacked ring fits on the first, second and third fingers, its protruding points at the ready to scratch or gouge. When not in combat position, it is just another stylish piece of contemporary jewelry. Ladies, buy two.

The show’s larger-scale objects are impressive and environmentally-minded; such as the NOAQ Flood Fighting System by Swedes Sigurd Melin and Anders Mohss. Big, red and no-nonsense in intent, the system protects land from flooding by way of air-filled tubes of reinforced plastic. These connect to form a chain which can extend over the land surface. A skirt attached along the tube on the flood side of the barrier uses the weight of the water to anchor the apparatus securely. Requiring little manpower and installation time, the NOAQ is one of the show’s preeminent objects marrying practicality and efficiency.

Two small-scale models of the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre housing complex, located outside of Paris, is an example of how social consciousness informs design. The development, once typical of the notoriously drab and banal housing structures that have come to define too much of the suburban Paris landscape (and which has also raised awareness of the living conditions of the immigrant populations who usually inhabit these dwellings), has been transformed by the addition of a new glass shell of balconies (conceived and designed by Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal) that completely envelope the existing buildings, dramatically breaking the visual (and, presumably, psychological) monotony of their façades. The change was both esthetically engaging, as well as a marked improvement of the structures’ insulation.

Britain’s Anthony Dunne’s and Fiona Raby’s 2009 Foragers, part of their Augmented Digestive System from Designs for an Overpopulated Planet series, is unquestionably the exhibition’s most brain-rattling and socio-politically confrontational piece. The bright green, glass-reinforced plastic forms, designed to fit over or around the head and body, and extending the limbs, mouth or internal organs, is nothing less than wearable environmental politics, advocating greater responsibility of a planet confronting reduced food sources and ecological upheavals. Foragers radically contemplates food gathering by asking whether humans could forage for food in the same manner as their bestial counterparts do, while simultaneously re-engineering and outsourcing the gastrointestinal tract through use of new equipment that aids digestion and the processing of existing, but barely edible, resources. As its creators state, the Forager, “assists our evolutionary processes, imagines a dystopian plan, and elicits discussion and debate.”

There is much to admire and enjoy in this show whose objects run the gamut from whimsical to life-saving grandeur. Adults and kids can take pleasure in the colors, shapes and function of the pieces, while giving serious thought to the quagmires that lie in wait for us and that have inspired these objects. Many of them go back a few decades, yet have held up to the passage of time due to the intelligence of their design and the durability of the materials used to make them. Pieces responding to the needs of the disabled are particularly moving, suggestive of the inventors’ sensitivity to those whose physical limits often negatively impact their sense of self-worth and humanity.

Visually exciting as it is, Born Out of Necessity has a built-in, Tantalus-like frustration factor: we cannot touch anything. Having a few “Touch Me” samples of at least some of the objects would have made this show truly complete, especially for younger visitors, always at the tactile stage in their development. How does the Desert Seal Tent feel? What’s the texture of the bumpy-looking Carna Folding Wheelchair?  It would sure take the pressure off the gallery guards, weary from repeating, “Please don’t touch!”

Apart from this minor complaint, Necessity is timely, thought-provoking, and socially responsible, urging us to look closely and at the same time at different genres of problems and their solutions. Well-presented and fully justified, this is a show we need to see.

“Born Out of Necessity” is on view through January 28, 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019. For more information visit or call (212) 708-9400.