“Mask Smart-Design and Capitalism in the Covid-19 Era” – Polyniki Katrantsioti
Throughout 2020, the year that changed the lives of everyone around the world, a new opportunity arose for many companies to take advantage of this situation and therefore profit off of it. At the start of the pandemic, there was a unique shortage of new essential products like masks, antibacterial gels, and any other protective gear that would prove to be useful. Along this year-long period, there has been a spark in new mask designs that cater to this kind of new need that the pandemic has brought upon, but is this actually part of a revolutionary idea, or is it just a good opportunity to capitalize on the public’s needs?
Firstly, since masks became a new accessory that everyone had to have their hands on, brands like Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton quickly came up with luxury, designer masks that would not only protect but also act as a unique designer piece for collectors. Just after two months after the pandemic had started, Vogue published a story titled “Masks to Shop Now”: “almost every day brings an announcement (or two or three) of another company introducing masks – or an old company pivoting to offer them” (Friedman 2020). The demand for masks provided a supply of different companies offering masks made from different materials that would either offer extra safety, a different pattern or preventing people from the newly coined term maskne (mask-acne). In addition to the supply and demand of masks that offer a more stylish look to their wearers, a variety of technologically enhanced masks have entered the market. The Phillips Fresh Air Mask, for instance, is an “air mask with electronic fan module to support optimized breathing” (Phillips 2020). Similar to this mask, in collaboration with Will.i.am, Honeywell introduced a “connected” smart-mask that combines the concept of masks with “noise-canceling headphones, LED lights for nighttime, a rechargeable battery and Bluetooth capability (Friedman 2021).
Although all these examples seem revolutionary from a design perspective, they also raise questions on how companies capitalize on the needs of the public. As masks become a necessity in order to protect oneself, they also become an accessory through which people express themselves, especially through a time where half of the face is already hidden. In this emergency, “it is hard to avoid the nagging sense that designers are exploiting fear born during a pandemic for their own ends (and profit)” (Friedman 2020). In addition to that, “every mask also represents labor and income at a time when both are in short supply” (Friedman 2020). Looking back at March of 2020, when a 12-piece pack of masks would be sold at 99 dollars, it is easy to see that the mask market, as with every other capitalist setting, offered the chance to profit off a traumatic, and disturbing time.
- Friedman, Vanessa. 2020. “Should Masks Be a Fashion Statement?”. New York Times, April 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/fashion/coronavirus-fashion-face-masks.html,
- Friedman, Vanessa. 2021. “Is This the Future of Face Masks?”. New York Times, April 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/style/william-face-mask.html,
- Phillips. 2020. “Freely breathe with confidence”. Dutch Design Week 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.philips.com/a-w/about/dutch-design-week-2020/philips-fresh-air-mask.html.
*Image credits: Daniel Foster – Face mask” is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)