If you grew up in Israel over the last couple of decades, you probably went to school carrying a gas mask along with your lunch box. Until 2014, when budgets were cut, the government handed gas masks to every citizen. But the ubiquity doesn’t make them less terrifying to see lying around.
In a recent project, Israeli designer Zlil Lazarovich redesigned a friendlier and more stylish way to prepare for chemical warfare. Instead of looking like an alien–or an aardvark in S&M gear–you can look more like yourself.
Lazarovich started working on the design concept in early 2013, after a round of missile attacks. “The stressful situation, the constant news updates and the frequent dashes to the nearest shelter reminded me of the Gulf War,” she says.
“I was a young child, and one of my most profound memories is the length that my parents took to make the situation seem more normal while we sat for hours in the chemically sealed room at home, with our gas masks on. They decorated their masks with colorful stickers and made funny gestures to try to make their own image look less intimidating to the four-year-old me.”
Current gas masks haven’t changed much since World War II, when manufacturing technology limited the design. Lazarovich, who was an industrial design student at the time the project began, realized that it was possible to change.
“Safety gear needs to be designed in a way that not only physically protect the user but also helps them to deal with those stressful times from a psychological point of view,” she says. “The mask should be an empowering extension of their body instead of adding stress by deforming their own visual identity.”
Her redesign has a larger window in front–showing eyes, eyebrows, and cheeks–so it’s easier to see someone’s facial expression. The wide shape mimics a healthy face, rather than a skeletal one. New materials and manufacturing technologies eliminated the need for bulky connectors, so the design is smoother. And silicone makes the mask white instead of black (and more comfortable to wear).
The mask is meant to make it easier to communicate with the friends and family around you, so you’re less likely to panic. “Most people don’t understand that there are areas in the world that are constantly exposed to war in civilian territory, making the home a war zone,” says Lazarovich. “Hearing a familiar voice, recognizing the face behind the mask and seeing familiar smiling eyes can go a long way.”