LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design department recently acquired three XUPERMASKs as part of our COVID-19 collecting initiative, a program we launched in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. These high-tech facemasks were manufactured with Honeywell and conceived by two Californians: William Adams (will.i.am), an entrepreneur and musician, most famously as a member of the Black Eyed Peas, and Jose Fernandez, a Hollywood costume designer who has worked on films including Black Panther (2018). We were drawn to their design for several reasons.
Unveiled in 2021—one year into the COVID-19 pandemic—the XUPERMASK anticipates the longevity of face mask culture. During a time when leaving one’s house could be deadly, many artists deployed speculative and futuristic designs to imagine what safety could look like. In the XUPERMASK, will.i.am and Jose elegantly marry entertainment technology with HEPA ventilation equipment. Their robotic design visually positions mask-wearers outside of the present moment and in a safer future, shielded both by its protective hardware and by an aesthetic of impenetrability.
The mask also captures the tension between the early pandemic desire to connect with community and the need to socially distance. Wearers can easily tap into their networks through Bluetooth. These tools also permit users to tune out their immediate surroundings. XUPERMASK expands the wearable technology stories LACMA can tell within our industrial design collection.
Finally, we were inspired by design choices that reference sneaker aesthetics, interested in how the mask was marketed as performance-enhancing activewear. The theme of outdoor living is a vital part of California history that we explore throughout our collection of California design.
I recently sat down with will.i.am and Jose Fernandez to discuss their design in greater detail.
We were excited to acquire the XUPERMASKs as part of our COVID collecting initiative. Could you elaborate on how you experienced the earliest months of the pandemic and why you decided to work together to create these innovative face masks?
will.i.am: The reality of the serious nature of the pandemic hit me while I was filming a TV show in London and watching the escalating volume of news around the world. On the flight back to Los Angeles I realized that society was going to need to start wearing masks regularly, and that paper masks were not going to provide enough protection, or be practical to wear for long periods of time. I had 11 hours on that flight to think about the key features that I wanted in a mask.
You have previously discussed finding inspiration in sneaker aesthetics and superhero costume design. Could you share more information about your design inspirations?
will.i.am: Our inspiration for a cool, stylish, and functional mask came from Hollywood—Tron meets sci-fi heroes
Jose, could you elaborate on how your previous work influenced XUPERMASK?
Jose Fernandez: I have worked on many films’ costumes and headgear designs [including movies like Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther and clients ranging from Daft Punk to astronauts], which gave me both inspiration and a lead in the design area when will.i.am and I first discussed the XUPERMASK concept. I wanted to incorporate design takes that aligned with the everyday usage of the mask and its functionality.
What was it like to collaborate with each other? What unique skills did each of you bring to the collaboration?
will.i.am: Jose and I have worked together over the years so he was my first call when I returned from London to talk about collaborating on the mask designs and functionality, and also about making it very stylish and cool. My focus is on finding ways to solve problems—developing a stylish mask that people want to wear, and Jose brought his superhero design sensibility that made it cool.
Jose: I will add that with my costume design background, I was eager to see how will.i.am and I would blend ideas to create what is now the XUPERMASK.
Can you describe your design process?
Jose: willi.am came to visit me with sketches and some hand-built prototypes. From there we discussed design styles and materials.
will.i.am: We used early designs on paper and then software to design the XUPERMASK. I created a few early prototypes in my studio, and then discussed materials with Jose, including how to form the mask to fit faces to be both comfortable and snug at the same time. Out of our combined ideas and work, XUPERMASK was born.
How did you choose the materials for the mask?
will.i.am: Materials were influenced by sneaker culture because the mask required a plastic that wasn’t hard and brittle like a mobile phone or a smart watch. It needed to be flexible and pliable to be comfortable on your face. Sneakers had the type of materials that were closest to what we were looking for.
There’s been so much excellent reporting lately about technologies that are racist either by omission (facial recognition), or by design (police apps). Did this inform your conception of XUPERMASK at all?
Jose: We are aware of the reporting and when creating the XUPERMASK, the goal was to create change in the wearable technology space. We hope this is a protective yet innovative solution to lifestyle adjustments.
will.i.am: Jose and I set out to create a solution for a very serious issue, that wearing masks unfortunately became politicized. We create masks that are practical, provide protective coverage, and are stylish so that people would want to wear them. COVID is color blind. As of this interview it has infected more than 485 million, and killed more than six million people worldwide.
Our department is most well known for our collection of California design. How have your experiences as Angelenos affected your relationship with design? What makes the XUPERMASKS an artifact of design culture in California?
will.i.am: California is known as the home of innovation in many fields, from apparel and consumer electronics, to sporting goods and automotive design. As Angelenos we are honored to add XUPERMASKS to this collection of unique artifacts created here in California.