Anti-Anxiety Objects: Design in the Age of Xanax

Ostrich Pillow, a fully encasing pillow that allows a nap anywhere.

“The Present” is a very special clock: Rather than measure the passage of time in increments of seconds, minutes, and hours, its solitary hand travels about the rainbow spectrum of its face, making a single revolution over the course of the year. Its movement, controlled by microchip, has been engineered to be so subtle that it’s virtually invisible from day to day: Over the span of 365 days, its 360-degree trek passes through the pure white of the winter solstice, eases into the green of the spring equinox, the yellow of summer, and the red of the autumn equinox before coming full circle.

What “The Present” lacks in practicality, it makes up for in a promise to allow you to “live in the moment,” the remedy for our collective, ubiquitous anxiety: “How can we live in the moment if the moment changes every second?” asks the  promotional video for the world’s first annual clock. The two-minute clip depicts life as a frenzied series of mouse-clicks, Google searches, and seconds speeding by. “It’s an explosion,” designer Scott Thrift told ARTINFO of our information age. “It’s difficult to feel settled and content with what’s happening right now because you always have this sense that you could be doing more.”

Pushing past the mawkishness of this sentiment, or perhaps won over by it, the Internet has voiced its approval: In November 2011, “The Present” more than quadrupled its $24,000 Kickstarter goal thanks to hundreds of backers who felt this was something the world needed. (“I had given up hope, but you did not,” one earnest enthusiast emailed Thrift). A year later, “The Present” is now on the verge of production, ready to assuage the persistent nagging of our everyday lives by silencing the ticking of the clock.

“The Present” may be perfectly timed: Lately, we’ve seen measurably greater strides towards relieving ourselves of anxiety. New York Magazine has noted an uptick in the use of benzodiazepines — anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and Valium — in the last decade or so: Prescriptions for these drugs have risen “17 percent since 2006,” according to one article, while the rate of rehabilitation treatment for them has tripled between 1998 and 2008. Similarly, CNN has identified a swell in relaxation-inducing, mood-calming beverages: Neuro Sleep, Sleep Water, Marley’s Mellow Mood, and others like it serve as the antitheses of Redbull. In contrast to the Surge and Extreme Go-Gurt guzzling, happiness-pursuing “Prozac Nation” culture of the ‘90s, it seems that these days all anyone really wants to do is chill out.

In the design realm, fashion, marketing, art, and production are following suit, mirroring this influx of chill pills and island-evoking canned beverages in their own non-chemical way. Take, for example, Swiss-based design firm Kawamura-Ganjavian’s Ostrich Pillow. It’s a cushion in which wearied office-workers can insert their heads and take a nap, simulating the experience of lying in one’s quiet, darkened bedroom without leaving one’s desks. Like “The Present,” this desktop sensory retreat was a Kickstarter superstar: One week after launching its fundraising campaign in September, the Ostrich Pillow reached its $70,000 goal, then went on to raise more than $195,000.

In London, Selfridges launched its “No Noise” initiative just last weekend, a campaign positioned as a response to our increased bombardment “with information and stimulation.” At several of its locations, the British mega-store currently provides architect Alex Cochrane-designed “Silence Rooms” in which shoes, phones, and talking are prohibited; “Quiet Shops” in which the salespeople whisper; and “Headspace” pods that provide short, guided meditations. While the windows feature artwork by Katie Paterson that comprise little more than dust, the sales floor is pushing a line of curated, minimalist clothing: all-black and all-white separates pulled from the spring lines of Acne, MargielaMugler, and other labels. Countering conventional retail wisdom, Selfridges has gone as far as muting the hum of incessant sales pitches by wiping the logos off of its product labels. (It brings to mind 2012’s wildly popular Brand Spirit blog, which, over the course of 100 days, took 100 cultural artifacts with the most recognizable and emotive branding — Coca-Cola bottles, Converse Shoes, Nintendo controllers, and the like — and silenced them by painting them all white).

In February, crowds lined outside of Doug Wheeler’s sensory-muting, colorless, soundless “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12” (2012) installation at David Zwirner, waiting to experience a brief foray into the sublime void. And after the thrill of hurtling down the gigantic slide, visitors to Carsten Höller’s 2011 “Experience,” the New Museum’s best-attended exhibition to date, were invited to strip down and unwind in the sensory-depriving “Giant Psycho Tank,” 1999, to simply float in peace and quiet (and potential water-borne illness, until the NYC Health Department shut it down).

From the ubiquity of yoga studios in New York that rival that of hot dog stands, to these desktop face caves, prescription pills, and de-branded jars of Crème de la Mer, the point at which these cultural phenomena converge is in the resounding plea to shut everything out. The anxieties that plagued previous generations are less easily escapable today, when work and social anxieties follow us home on our handheld devices. (And until recently, the looming end of the world was likely adding to the tension).

What “The Present” and other designs like it have to offer, Thrift hopes, is a much-needed break. By stretching our unit of time from seconds to years, he aims to calm our fears that time is running out. “Having that extra leap in the scale of time has allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable about what I should have accomplished, or what I should expect of myself,” he said. Think of it this way: In the grand scheme of things, a single bad day at work is a small misstep in the much longer road toward ultimately being promoted. “The Present” is here to serve as a reminder.


ThePresent from m ss ng p eces on Vimeo.