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Artful masks let you wear the smile of William Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale

Ron Arad designs masks depicting the smiles of William Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale, as well as grinning portraits taken from paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Dalí.

Artful masks let you wear the smile of William Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale

Even if you’ve perfected the art of “smizing”—a craft named by Tyra Banks that gives the impression of a smile by slightly squinting your eyes without moving any of your face below—the now ubiquitous face mask leaves a person with a lot of blank canvas to work with below the eyes. A new fundraiser for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) called “Smile for our NHS” puts that canvas to good use, with a series of masks depicting famous artists from the nose down.

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A mask that covers up facial features can be downright disorienting, since we humans rely on nonverbal cues, such as the degree to which a person smiles, when we socialize, according to Fan Liu, an assistant professor of decision sciences and marketing at Adelphi University. The smile, in its own way, is a kind of art. There’s a reason why portraiture has historically depicted a person’s face rather than the back of their head.

Industrial designer and artist Ron Arad seems to think so too. Arad designed a series of painterly masks for the NHS project that depict the smiles of William Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale, as well as grinning portraits taken from paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Dalí.

In addition to the benefit the masks provide by reducing the spread of coronavirus, “the primary benefit of these non-medical face masks is to others: these designs turn them from something impersonal and frightening into coverings that will make people smile,” the project’s website reads. (Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—some might find the contrast of reality and its painterly depiction downright creepy.)

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The project is currently seeking new manufacturers to set up a supply chain and make the masks available to the general public—both as ready-made final products and by making the designs available for personal assembly. In reply to a comment on the charity’s Instagram feed April 26, Smile for our NHS wrote, “We are currently preparing stock and we will share our website with all the relevant information in due course.” So why are private charities raising money for a government entity? The NHS has suffered years of budget cuts under a conservative government—and in a bit of an about-face, the public has become the safety net (though the NHS and its workers on the front lines are well-loved).

Beyond the altruism of the project, Smile for our NHS is about as close as we’ll get to seeing the smiles in masterworks relatively up close for some time now. But I think there might be one that’s missing—Mona Lisa’s.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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