How Design for One Turns Into Design for All

How Design for One Turns Into Design for All

And now Tommy Hilfiger has its own line of pants, shirts, jackets, sweaters and dresses, using magnetic closures instead of buttons and snaps.

Hilfiger has teamed up with MagnaReady, a company started a few years ago by Maura Horton, then a former clothing designer, whose husband suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He had trouble buttoning his shirt. Ms. Horton saw an opportunity, not an obstacle. As with other products in the show, the impetus for better design came from the ground up, in this case not from someone with the disability but from a family member.

You don’t have to have Parkinson’s or arthritis or a prosthetic hand to prefer magnets to buttons and snaps, or to like the idea, and look, of Velcro seams and zippered sleeves. There’s a white dress shirt with magnetic closures in the show, which could easily be marketed straight to mainstream consumers, never mind the “adaptive” label. Likewise, pairs of brightly patterned compression socks by Top & Derby.


Intricate prosthetic leg covers by Alleles Design Studio.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

They provide a good example of how design alters the social and business calculus. Compression socks help increase the circulation of blood and minimize swelling from prolonged sedentariness. They’re often worn by people with diabetes or high blood pressure. You may picture them in tan, black or white, next to the bunion pads at the drugstore.

But, as it happens, fashion models wear compression socks, too, because they spend long stretches of time on airplanes. So do athletes. And what models and athletes wear moves a lot of merchandise.

Compression socks in stylish patterns are just stylish socks that happen to have a medical value for some customers. Any fashion-conscious consumer with a little cash to spare might consider them.

When I got home from the show, I Googled a picture of the Nike FlyEase for my teenage son but didn’t tell him the back story. He loved they way they looked.

Then I recounted the sneakers’ origins. Would he still wear them? I asked.

“Why not?” he asked me back.

And that response points toward the generational shift. “Millennials are incredibly nonjudgmental and accepting,” said Leslie Speer, a designer of a prosthetic leg in the exhibition.


“Lower Limb Prosthesis Prototype,” from Simple Limb Initiative.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Ms. Steiner, the co-curator, agreed: “When I talk to my design students about inclusive design, there is no snickering, not even a hint of doubt. They simply take it for granted that it’s part of a designer’s job today.”

This is plain logic, really. All our shoes, coats and sweaters, the beds we sleep on, the forks and knives we eat with, our lamps and loudspeakers, stairs and elevators, central heat and air-conditioning exist to compensate for what every human being, to some degree, lacks and needs.

“Super normal” is a term that the designers Jasper Meyerson and Naoto Fukasawa coined some years ago to describe a class of everyday, mostly anonymous products. Super normal chairs, lamps and bottle openers don’t try too hard to be noticed; they’re part of life, they do their jobs. And we would miss them if they weren’t around.

“How super normal can a prosthetic hand be?” is, in essence, the question posed by Hands of X. The project envisions prosthetic hands made from ordinary, tasteful, mix-and-match materials like wood, leather, felt and metal. Muji was an inspiration. It pictures the acquisition of hands becoming similar to picking eyeglass frames or a paint color for a car: unremarkable and at the same time an expression of personal identity.

“We think of prosthetic hands mostly in two forms,” Mr. Pullin told me. “There is anatomical realism — meaning those pink, plastic hands — or bionic, ‘Terminator’ hands. Our focus with Hands of X was on people in the middle who don’t want to hide their disability, but also don’t want to become poster children for some futuristic, superhuman narrative, which carries with it a fairly exhausting notion of ‘triumph over adversity.’”

His phrase for Hands of X: “No triumph, no tragedy.”


Hands of X envisions prosthetic hands made from ordinary, tasteful, mix-and-match materials.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

And that’s not unlike the thinking behind plastic prosthetic leg covers by McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda, two young Canadian designers, who founded Alleles Design Studio. The covers are among the most striking things in the show: intricately patterned, beautifully designed, like snap-on tattoos.

“Our stuff is not cheap,” Mr. Palibroda acknowledged, “but we’re the cheapest prosthetic cover company by far, and we get daily pushback from the industry. Distributors and clinicians are constantly telling us to quadruple our prices.”

Ms. Wanner said that keeping the covers relatively affordable is partly about changing the public conversation: “We want an 18-year-old girl to be able to afford our cover and feel fabulous. Part of the annoyance of being an amputee is that in public people are always seeing prostheses and asking the amputees to explain what happened, so they’re constantly made to relive trauma. Our desire is that people see these covers and say, ‘cool legs,’ like ‘cool boots.’”

Nobody wants pity, Ms. Wanner added: “We all want the same thing. We all want to feel amazing.”

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