2018-01-25 18:54:03
Critic’s Notebook: How Design for One Turns Into Design for All

Matthew Walzer was a college-bound teenager with cerebral palsy when he sent a letter to Nike several years ago. He explained that he had trouble tying laces and slipping into shoes without help.

But he didn’t want sneakers that looked clunky and clinical. He wanted Nikes, stylish ones like other students wore that worked for him.

In response, the company introduced a line called FlyEase. They’re slip-ons with a zipper that seals the back and then Velcro-ties the top in one simple motion.

Not incidentally, they look fantastic.

A pair is now on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in “Access+Ability,” a show organized by Cara McCarty and Rochelle Steiner.

See for yourself:

Nearly a century ago, tubular metal furniture by Marcel Breuer helped reinvent the wheelchair. Chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, classics of midcentury modernism, evolved from a molded plywood splint the couple devised for wounded soldiers.

But too often products made for people with different physical, cognitive and sensory abilities have been ugly, feebly designed and stigmatizing.

They’ve been developed not by designers but by engineers. And engineers haven’t always taken their cues from people who have disabilities, the ones who know best what they need and want.

The exhibition makes plain why design matters. It points toward a generational change in thinking, not just about designing for difference but about diversity and inclusion. Make a specialty item easier to use — and at the same time, fun, cool and beautiful — and that item may be embraced and used by all. The real issue isn’t disability. It’s choice.

Graham Pullin is one of the designers of a prosthesis in the show, called Hands of X. I called him the other day. He cited the example of eyeglasses, which doctors used to call “medical appliances.” Then fashion designers got involved.

Annual global sales of eyewear now approach $100 billion. You can imagine if hearing aids were given the same treatment. They might end up looking like the Bedazzled and Bejeweled Earring Aid, by Elana Langer, in “Access+Ability”:

It turns out that one out of five adults in the United States has some disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — one out of 20 children. That’s a demographic and economic motivator. But we also know that when people feel better about themselves, medical outcomes improve.

“The utility of the most functional object in the world will go to waste if potential users don’t connect with it and can’t see themselves using it,” said Donald Strum, a principal for product and graphic design at Michael Graves Architecture and Design. Graves’s firm has rethought, among many medical devices, walking sticks, so they work better and use interchangeable handles, colors and tips, which let customers personalize them.

Mr. Strum told me he approached Target about producing a line of medical equipment a decade ago. The company declined. Back then, its marketing department didn’t find the idea sexy. If other retailers took the lead, company officials said, they might follow.

Well, the climate has clearly changed. Target now offers adaptive clothing. There’s a Target puffer jacket in the show, designed by Mari Anderson Bogdan, with Velcro seams and zip-on sleeves to serve young people who have trouble dressing.

Zappos has gotten into the game, too, selling reversible shirts, coats, dresses and pants, in response to parents who petitioned the online retailer to offer shoes and clothes, easy on and off, for children with disabilities.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”