Ever upload a photo of friends to your Facebook, only to have the system accurately identify those pictured and ask if you’d like to tag them? Thanks to DeepFace, this is becoming more common, as the social network creates what it has called “the largest facial dataset to date.” It is also, in layman’s terms, creepy as hell.
That was the scenario that Ewa Nowak found herself contemplating in 2017. At the time, she had recently graduated from the design department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and she was in the process of cofounding NOMA, an industrial design firm she runs with partner Jarosław Markowitz. She began journaling about the idea of privacy and eventually sketched a series of ideas for workarounds.
“I was just amazed how they could identify our gender, age, and mood,” Nowak explains via an interpreter, remembering her initial driving curiosity. “But also how the development is constantly leveling up. I was surprised about how even if we have our face partially covered, how [face recognition] can still follow us and distinguish us.”
Having seen the light-up glasses invented by Japan’s National Institute of Informatics to foil face recognition, Nowak decided to move her project in a different direction, creating what she describes as face jewelry. Her design included two brass circles that hang down from the cheekbones and an additional long piece of brass that stretches up the forehead. Wires allow you to hang the whole affair from your ears, like a pair of eyeglasses.
Much to her surprise, the Prince-like design was the first one Nowak tried and the first that worked. However, she experimented with numerous other iterations from her sketchbook, using paper to mimic the face-camouflaging dark and light spots, and then testing them by —what else?—uploading images to a Facebook gallery.
Her face jewelry recently won the Mazda Design Award at the Łódź Design Festival. It’s an elegant answer to a much-considered question of privacy, and a statement as much as a utilitarian device. In Warsaw, due to a recent influx of pollution, it’s become common for people to wear smog masks. Isn’t it rational to respond to the proliferation of public monitoring and facial recognition by protecting our vulnerable areas in a similar fashion?
Nowak’s design must be molded to the wearer’s face to be effective, so she currently has no plans to mass-produce what she considers to be a conceptual work of art rather than a product. However, its mere existence broaches some of the implications that would crop up if anything like her creation ever became popular. Recently, NOMA was asked to submit work for exhibition consideration at the national museum in China. Although two of Nowak’s other pieces were accepted—a necklace that allows the wearer to see from other perspectives and a pair of lenses that throws the world into a decolorized, kaleidoscopic view—her privacy glasses were rejected.
“After two weeks, a reply came that they can’t accept it for political reasons,” Nowak explains. “It was a very firm refusal.”
Nowak remains curious about the topic of privacy and how technology continues to press into daily life; she mentions the Netflix series Black Mirror more than once. But she has turned her attention to other projects. NOMA is working on a series of industrial design projects. And in her spare creative time, she’s designing a chair with Markowitz that they hope will double as a piece of gym equipment. She’s also progressed into jewelry design, a new creative project she finds funny, given that before working on the privacy jewelry she didn’t even know that wires bend after being heated.
Another lesson from her award-winning face shield: Being creative isn’t enough. You also need to consider when and how to present new ideas to the world.
“I worked on the [face jewelry] for two or three months, and then it waited,” Nowak says. “The reason I showed in Łódź is because there was a competition. I entered, and the project won. It’s the easiest way to get displayed. There’s so many projects stuck at the university level. When we were studying, a lot of people asked how to show their work to people and share ideas. Education and business are disconnected from art.”