Soft Goods Prototyping

Soft Goods Prototyping

Soft goods design is its own special area of the design industry, and soft goods prototyping is similarly unique. At Interwoven Design we specialize in soft goods, so we make a lot of these prototypes. The process we use is particular to our studio, and to demonstrate why we like this method we’ll explain what is special about soft goods prototypes and walk you through the steps. This prototyping method can become a powerful tool even for designers who lack textile and sewing experience.

What is a soft goods prototype? 

Prototyping is an iterative process and starts with a combination of 2D sketches and 3D mockups. these first “prototypes” are to quickly asses a design idea and are used to study volume, form, access points and closures. Once the form is starting to become refined we then progress onto a higher fidelity mock-up. this article explains how we go from a paper mock-up to a fully resolved prototype that serves as a model for manufacturing. We call this final model a “high fidelity prototype”. It looks like a new product that is ready to take home and use.

The ability to create a high fidelity prototype from a pattern is the goal of soft goods prototyping.

The goal of the soft goods prototyping process is to develop a pattern that will result in a consistent, high fidelity end-result as well as to create that result to demonstrate the viability of the pattern. A key stage in this process is making a Muslin.

What is a Muslin?

We will use “Muslin” with a capital M to indicate the soft goods industrial design mock up in a basic textile as compared to the basic cotton “muslin” fabric that most often used in this process. A Muslin is a model of the design that has been sewn up in low resolution fabrics, not using final textiles, colors, or hardware. It is a specific stage of the soft goods prototyping process that helps us to test the accuracy and quality of our pattern before using final materials. A Muslin is a tool on the journey to developing a compelling prototype that allows us to work out any issues with the design before moving to final materials. It may or may not be literally sewn in muslin fabric, though it often is.

A Muslin (with a capital M) is a critical tool for testing the accuracy and suitability of a soft goods pattern.

The Brown Paper Pattern-making Method

But how do we move from a drwing and fast mock up to a pattern from which we can cut a Muslin? We use a process called the Brown Paper Patternmaking Method to create our soft goods patterns, a method developed by Interwoven Design’s principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman. In this method the designer sculpts a full scale model of the desired soft good in brown craft paper, marks it up, cuts it apart, and creates a pattern with it that is then sewn up and tested for accuracy and performance.

The Brown Paper Pattern-making Method allows a designer to go from a paper model to a high fidelity prototype with accuracy.

We’ll walk through the steps and show some examples to demonstrate the key concepts, but here is the overview of the process:

  1. Create a refined design drawing
  2. Sculpt a full scale craft paper model from the drawing
  3. Add seam lines, grain lines and cross marks
  4. Cut the model apart to create pattern pieces
  5. Transfer the craft paper pieces to pattern paper
  6. True the patterns and add seam allowance
  7. Transfer the pattern paper pieces to muslin 
  8. Sew up a Muslin and make any necessary adjustments to the pattern
  9. Sew up a final high fidelity prototype

The Steps

1. Ideate to create a refined design drawing. This process should involve 2D and 3D sketches to develop your design concept. Think about hardware, colors, and final materials as you create this drawing. Your design drawing should be a detailed and refined schematic that serves as a blueprint for the model making that will follow.  While some refinement will be possible in future stages, the drawing should be as close to a final design as possible.

A refined design drawing considers the final form, materials, colors, and features of the design.

2. From the design drawing, sculpt a full scale model in brown craft paper with masking tape or painter’s tape. Craft paper behaves a lot like a textile while holding its shape well, which is why we use it for this method. Creating the initial model is the most difficult step of the entire process. If you can get this step right, the rest of the process will flow naturally. Any adjustments that need to be made to the original concept will be made here. Anything represented in your sculpted model will be transferred to the final model, so make sure it is what you want.

Here are a few tips:

  • Starting from the “base” – sculpt the form of the model so that it looks as close as possible to the finished design – it should be the same scale and shape a your concept
  • Only use tape you can draw on. Use as much as you need.
  • Draw on your model as needed to show every detail: curves, closures, straps, pockets, handles, etc.
  • Refine your sculpture until it is airtight and exactly the form you want.
  • Edges should meet neatly with minimal to no overlap.
The full scale model in brown paper should be neatly and precisely constructed.

3. Once you are satisfied that the object fits and functions as desired, draw seam lines with a fine tip Sharpie.  Be sure to consider how 3 dimensional shapes will be created by joining flat pieces of fabric and draw a seam where the flat pieces join.  Think of how a basketball, baseball or tennis ball are made from flat pieces to create spheres. A noter good tips is to look at your own soft goods possessions to see how they are constructed.

Seam lines determine the practical construction of the form.

4. Mark grain lines (north-south lines that denote the grain of the fabric from which the bag will be made) on each of the brown paper model pieces. Add cross marks and labels to each of the pattern pieces. Cross marks will act as guides to rejoin the pattern pieces once you separate them.

Think of a pattern as a puzzle in 3 dimensions, create a guide for yourself so you can put the puzzle together again.  Cross marks are markings perpendicular to the seam lines that show where the components created by the seams connect. Give each of your pattern pieces good, descriptive label and be sure not to duplicate label names.  You can use photos to capture the construction and make a map of how the pieces fit together.

6. Cut the brown paper model apart. Be careful to cut the seam lines as straight and as neatly as possible. Use scissors or an Exacto knife to cut with precision and using a metal ruler where applicable to also help create clean lines.

IMPORTANT TIP: If your bag is symmetrical only cut the right half of the bag and leave the left half intact. You will be able to “reflect” your pattern to make a perfectly symmetrical pattern from only ½ of your model.

Adding grain lines, cross marks, and component labels ensures that you will be able to recreate the form once it is cut apart.

7. Transfer the brown paper model pieces onto pattern paper.  Double check that all of your seam lines are the same length by “walking” your seams on top of each other. This is “trueing” the pattern and ensures that the pattern will fit together with smooth seams when it is sewn up. Seams that are not the same length will not sew together correctly. There will be too much fabric on one side, and the final model will be messy. This can be avoided though careful review at the pattern stage. Be sure to transfer labels and cross-marks to the pattern paper. Once the pattern is reviewed for accuracy, add a seam allowance of ½”.

Cut with clean, careful lines to get the most accurate pattern possible from your model.

8. Transfer your pattern pieces to muslin (or your chosen mock-up fabric) and cut. In the studio, we use wax transfer paper and a tracing wheel to transfer the pattern accurately to the muslin. but you can also cut out the pattern pieces and trace them onto you fabric.

Accuracy and care is needed at every stage of this process to make sure the final result reflects the original model.

9. Sew up a Muslin and assess thoroughly. The Muslin is a test of your pattern, it allows you to resolve any issues before creating the final prototype. On the Muslin, you can add zippers, trims and plastic hardware so you can test how things work and feel. Make any adjustments needed and transfer them back to the pattern.

Once an initial Muslin is sewn and assessed, a second or third might be created to further refine the design. These changes are updated in the pattern.

10. Finally your pattern is ready for final fabric. Transfer the pattern to the back side of the final fabric, cut it out and sew up a high fidelity prototype in final materials. This final model proves the quality and viability of your pattern and it should look like it could be purchased and used immediately.

Once the Muslin demonstrates the viability of the pattern, a high fidelity prototype can be created.

Try it!

While it takes time and attention to use the Brown Paper Pattern-making Method, it is a wonderful way for those unfamiliar with pattern-making to create original patterns that can provide consistently professional results. Do you have a soft goods design idea you’ve wanted to bring to life? Try this prototyping method!

Design Object Series N. 002

Monopoly, the Fire Escape + the Medical Syringe

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three design objects from the turn of the century and the pioneering women behind them: Monopoly, the outrageously popular board game designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1904, the fire escape, designed by Anna Connelly in 1887, and the one-handed medical syringe, designed by Letitia Geer in 1899.

Monopoly

Design Objects: Monopoly
Monopoly was designed in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie. Photo courtesy of Mike_Fleming.

You know the game: two to eight players battle it out for domination by buying and developing properties, and forcing their opponents into bankruptcy. These days you can play the classic game or one of hundreds of themed spin-offs; Star Wars, Pokemon, Game of Thrones, The Simpsons…it is an ever-expanding catalogue.

The game was developed and patented in Washington DC by stenographer and leftwing feminist Elizabeth Magie in 1903. It was originally called The Landlord’s Game and was in Magie’s words, “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences. It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life’, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”

The colorful boardgame that became Monopoly
The Landlord’s Game per Elizabeth Magie’s 1924 patent. Photo courtesy of Lucius Kwok.

Magie was a follower of American economist Henry George, and wanted to create a tool to teach others about the danger of wealth disparity and the exploitation of tenants by landlords. She had the bright idea of using a new, growing medium to engage the economic student: the board game. The game was immediately popular with children and adults alike, spreading by word of mouth and capitalizing on the pull of competitive play. Magie’s role as innovator was unfortunately overshadowed by the opportunistic entrepreneur who coopted her concept. The game was appropriated by Charles Darrow, who claimed it as his own invention and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1932, erasing Magie from the origin story as he made millions. The myth that Darrow is the creator persists to this day, but we know better.

The Fire Escape

Design Objects: Fire Escape
The fire escape was designed by Anna Connelly in 1887. Photo courtesy of Chris Bertram.

While Magie wanted to educate people about economics, the next pioneer wanted to save their lives. The fire escape is an emergency exit, usually exterior to a building (though not necessarily), that provides an alternative to a stairwell, which might be inaccessible or compromised in an emergency. For those in urban environments, they are an omnipresent feature of the landscape, peppering every multi-story building, particularly residential buildings. The Interwoven Design office is in Brooklyn, New York, so we see hundreds of fire escapes on residential brownstones every day. They can range from chunky and utilitarian to colorful and statement-making.

a blue fire escape with a mural on the building behind it
Fire escapes in cities today are often seen as a decorative opportunity, as with this blue fire escape in SoHo featuring a mural. Photo courtesy of David Paul Ohmer.

Their invention was a response to 19th century building codes, which were in turn responding to the overcrowding in cities in England and the deaths that resulted from inadequate exits, especially by fire. Builders liked that they could be easily retrofit to existing buildings as well as inexpensively incorporated into new designs. While a range of strategies were developed independently in large cities during the industrial revolution, Connelly’s design is the ancestor of the modern fire escape, the classic zig zag structure running up an exterior. For a taste of historic detail, check out Connelly’s original patent.

While the fire escape was meeting a critical need in growing cities, there were problems with the concept. They weren’t uniformly effective, and the convenient platforms and railings were too tempting as makeshift patios, outdoor sleeping quarters, drying racks, and more, especially in poor neighborhoods. Even today, though technically illegal, repurposed fire escapes are a common sight.

One-handed Medical Syringe

Both the fire escape and the medical syringe have saved countless lives in the decades since their invention, and both objects have negative arguments against them in our current culture. The fire escapes are used in ways that were never intended, and the one-handed syringe has facilitated drug abuse for millions.

The concept of the syringe has been around since the ancient Roman era, but originally the devices were used topically to apply creams and ointments. Syringes weren’t used to inject substances subcutaneously until the development of the hollow needle in 1844, and weren’t tolerable until years later when the technology to make the needle much finer was available. In all that time, using a syringe was a two-handed affair for medical professionals. That all changed in 1899, when Letitia Mumford Geer, a nurse from New York, was granted a patent for an “in a hand-syringe”, or a one-handed syringe. This allowed a medical professional or even a patient to perform an injection with ease. While the materials of the syringe have been gradually improved over time, adopting material advancements as they became available, the fundamental technology has not changed. 

Very little is known about Geer beyond the US census records and the information on the patent itself. She was born in New York 1853 and died there in 1935 at the age of 83. She had three brothers, and she was a nurse. Unfortunately this is all we know about her, despite her incredible contribution to medical design.

The device was described as consisting of “a cylinder, a piston and an operating-rod which is bent upon itself to form a smooth and rigid arm terminating in a hand, which, in its extreme positions, is located within reach of the fingers of the hand which holds the cylinder, thus permitting one hand to hold and operate the syringe.” 

A diagram of Geer’s syringe design per her 1899 patent. Image via the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The patent outlines the operation of the syringe as follows: 

“The handle can be drawn into a position near to the cylinder while injecting the medicine by the use of one hand, thereby enabling the operator to use the syringe himself without the aid of an assistant. The advantages of the medical syringe are several. The syringe is very simple and cheap. It can be operated with one hand.”

The syringe opened up the possibility of self-administering medicine, and could be produced inexpensively. The glass components could be sterilized, a development that evolved into more and more of the parts of the syringe being glass or metal to allow a greater level of hygiene in injections. These improvements, better sterilization and one-handed action, have saved countless lives over the decades since Geer’s invention.

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What are E-textiles?

What are E-textiles?

We love innovative technology at Interwoven Design, and when you are talking about wearable technology, one of the most innovative tools at our disposal are e-textiles. What are e-textiles? Well, it can be a bit confusing. We’ll explain what they are, what they aren’t, and why we love them in this Insight article. You can also check out our fantastic interview with LOOMIA e-textiles expert Maddy Maxey to learn more about why e-textiles are a powerful addition to your design toolkit. 

There is a lot of jargon around textiles and clothing with electronic components or capabilities, some of which is official industrial jargon and some of which is convenient non-official jargon that also serves to confuse. Wearable technology, e-textiles, smart textiles, smart clothing, active textiles, functional fabric…what is the difference? 

A working definition

E-textile is short for electronic textile. It’s one of those terms that doesn’t have a standard definition, so even within the industry you hear a range of meanings. The concept involves some combination of electronics and textiles, but there is a spectrum that ranges from combinations that are high on the electronic part and low on the textile part to those that are low on the electronic part and high on the textile part. 

This streetwear brand uses e-textiles to create luminescent garments and footwear. Image via Halo Streetwear.

Here is Textile Learner’s definition

“Electronic textiles, or simply e-textiles, are textiles with embedded electronics and some fiber materials possessing electrical characteristics and providing some useful functions. An electronic textile is a fabric that can conduct electricity. If it is combined with electronic components it can sense changes in its environment and respond by giving off light, sound or radio waves.”

Here is Science Direct’s definition:

“Electronic textiles (e-textiles) are textiles that are, or are part of, electronic components that create systems capable of sensing, heating, lighting or transmitting data.”

We like LOOMIA’s definition best: 

“An electronic textile (e-textile) is a circuit that is either constructed into a textile or created with the intention of being integrated into a textile.”

While they are all valid and reading them gets us closer to an understanding, we find LOOMIA’s the most flexible and useful as it helps us to understand the two main categories of e-textiles: laminated and embedded. Let’s look at that definition again: An e-textile is a circuit that is either constructed into a textile (embedded) or integrated into a textile (laminated). What is a circuit? A circuit is the complete path of an electric current; a series of electronic components that create a loop through which energy can flow. 

The Sound Shirt allows deaf users to feel music on their skin. Image via CuteCircuit.

Embedded e-textiles

Embedded e-textiles feature electronic components woven or knitted into fabric. Directly printing or embroidering a conductive circuit onto a textile also falls into the embedded category. This type of e-textile tends to look and feel more like a textile, and is more likely to be driven from textile engineering. 

Take the example of a vest woven with a blend of cotton and a heat-conductive fiber to keep the user warm. The heat-conductive fiber is a conductive fiber, and any fabric woven with it is also an e-textile. 

Because they must be integrated at the level of the fiber, yarn or into the weave, embedded e-textiles tend to be softer, more sleek, and more comfortable to wear against the body, which makes them the more popular of the two categories. That said, the small scale needed for embedding limits the strength and complexity of the electronic components the final e-textile can contain, and ultimately limits their energy output. 

Laminated e-textiles

In contrast, laminated e-textiles involve electronic components like circuits and sensors that are affixed to an existing textile. These may be sewn on, joined with adhesive, attached to another substrate which is then attached to the textile, or attached with any number of methods. Laminated e-textiles tend to be bulkier and less comfortable than embedded textiles, though the development of increasingly small electronic components means that the gap between embedded and laminated e-textiles is getting smaller every year, with the bulk of laminated options going down and the performance of embedded options going up. An example of a laminated e-textile is a medical gown with a sensor built in to monitor biodata.

In this example, heart monitoring technology has been integrated into a sports bra and an athletic top. Image via Sensoria.

What aren’t e-textiles?

Wearable technology is not synonymous with e-textile though an e-textile might be used to create a wearable technology product. Wearable technology refers to an entire wearable device, not to a component. The same goes for a piece of smart clothing, which might incorporate an e-textile but not constitute one. An active textile or functional fabric refers to a textile with a special performance function like moisture-wicking or thermal regulation, and has nothing to do with electronic integration at all.

The term smart textile may be used to refer to an e-textile but is a larger, broader category that may also include metallic textiles, wearable electronics, fabric with medical applications or fabrics that can respond to stimuli non-electronically, like color-changing textiles that respond to heat levels. Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, the principal designer at Interwoven Design, has written the book on the subject, Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics. She defines smart textiles as textiles that use our senses “as a way of gathering information from and about us by means of pressure, temperature, light, low-voltage current, moisture, and other stimuli…Smart textiles “learn” from our bodies and our environments, and react.”

In sum

An e-textile might look more electronic or it might look more textile-like depending on its intended purpose and whether it’s embedded or laminated. The creation of an e-textile might be driven by an electronics engineer, a textile engineer, or neither. Could you incorporate an e-textile into a future project? More and more e-textiles are popping up on the market each season as it is a growing industry and a space worth watching for those interested in innovation and technology.

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How to Incorporate Sustainability into Design

How to Incorporate Sustainability into Design

Overflowing landfills, giant islands of plastic floating in the ocean, the rise in material culture and consumerism, climate change, and more have alerted us as a planet to the importance of sustainable design. Our actions as individuals, as companies, as municipalities, all impact the health of the environment and the living beings it supports, including humans. What is sustainable design, and how do we incorporate sustainability into design? Fortunately there are a lot of sustainable strategies for designers, and many ways they can minimize and even reverse their impact.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals give an excellent overview of key sustainable impact areas to consider across industries. Image via un.org.

What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design is an approach to design that demonstrates key principles of sustainability, which are mainly concerned with minimizing the depletion of natural resources and increasing product lifespans. There are many strategies for achieving these goals, though any given product labeled as being ‘sustainable’ may feature one, several, or (sadly) none of these strategies.

Sustainable impact is calculated by reviewing the impact of the product in four areas: ecological damage, human health damage, resource depletion, and social impact. Sustainable designers ask themselves what the impacts in these four categories might be at each stage of product development, and how they might be minimized or avoided. They do life cycle assessments to determine those impacts precisely, and to compare the impact of one product to another.

The Product Life Cycle

The product life cycle includes four main stages:

  1. Raw materials: the impact of extracting raw materials
  2. Manufacturing: the impact of manufacturing the product, including material processing, transportation and factory processes
  3. Use: the impact of consumer usage of the product, including the potential duration of use
  4. End of Life: the impact of disposing of the product, including the potential for recycling and material recapture
The product life cycle helps designers calculate potential impacts at each stage. Image via pre-sustainability.com.

You will sometimes see the product life cycle split into 5 or 6 stages but they are all fundamentally the same. Sustainable design looks at each of these stages and reviews the potential for impact in each of the four impact categories above. Does the extraction of the raw materials involve human health damage? Does the use of the product harm the environment? Can the materials be recaptured at the end of life, or do they constitute permanent resource depletion? 

This framework aids the designer in decision-making at every stage. While there is always some degree of impact, decisions about what materials to use, the durability and source of those materials, the form and assembly of the product, the manufacturing processes involved, and many more.

The Sustainability Toolbox

Here are some of the key tools in the sustainable design toolbox. This is not a comprehensive list but includes the tools we find especially powerful. You’ll notice that many of them reference and depend on one another, and this is no coincidence. Many of the tools support and facilitate the use of additional tools. While it may not be possible to implement all of them, it is always possible to take advantage of sustainable strategies to participate in responsible design. More and more designers agree that it is irresponsible not to consider these strategies. Many of the decisions that influence social and environmental impacts are controlled in the early design phases of the product, well before it gets to the consumer. This is where we have the most power to make a difference.

Materials & Use

Dematerialization

If you review life cycle assessments, you’ll quickly see an unsurprising pattern emerge: fewer materials means fewer impacts. It’s a pretty reliable guideline. Considering the volume of material needed for a product and making an effort to minimize that volume is a great way to lower its impact. Could your form be streamlined in some way? Play with the structure to learn the smallest amount of material you can use while preserving functionality.

Longevity

Longevity is not only about durability, though this is of course important to allow a product to survive over time. Longevity means that, for whatever reason, people want to keep your product over the course of their lives. They want to treasure it and pass it on to others. Perhaps the product can be repaired or rarely needs to be replaced. Duration of use is an incredibly powerful metric in impact calculations, spreading the impact over decades.

Recyclability

Designing a product to be recyclable is a tricky proposition, in part because the recycling system is limited and varies from one region to another, and in part because it depends highly on being able to isolate component materials at the end of life. It requires thinking about the key materials of the product, how they will be assembled, any adhesives or hardware that may be involved, and whether or not they can be disassembled. While it may not be possible for every element of the design to be recycled, the fraction that can could be improved with thoughtful material and manufacturing choices.

Production Strategies

Disassembly

‘Design for disassembly’ is a popular phrase in the industry at the moment, and for good reason. This design approach creates products that are built to be disassembled at the end of life to facilitate recycling. Many of the hurdles of recycling arise from materials that are theoretically recyclable in isolation but impossible to handle when indefinitely bonded to another material. It can make repair an easier service option for the product as well. Many products, especially those with technological elements, lock the user out upon failure or end of life. Design for disassembly solves this problem of access and empowers the user to maintain and repair the product as needed.

Modularity

Modularity allows a product to be reconfigured to suit the needs of the user. It is tied to longevity, disassembly, repairability, and recyclability. A piece of furniture that is modular is more likely to work in multiple homes across a user’s lifetime. A modular storage system is more likely to have a damaged element replaced than to be discarded altogether. This approach is compatible with a service model of design as well.

Repairability

Objects that can be repaired have an exponentially longer lifespan than those that cannot. Think about clothing and shoes from the turn of the century, products that would serve the user for decades and still be passed on. This strategy is tied to disassembly, longevity, modularity, and service models. It can be achieved through empowering the user to repair the product themselves, or it can be part of a service system that is offered by the producer.

Service Models

Single-use products are a major contributor to landfill waste, and circular systems that allow users to share a product or service give a product a more productive lifespan, serving far more users. Citibike is a great example of a service model, it allows users to borrow bikes when they need them, and users who rarely bike don’t need to purchase a bike they won’t use. That the product stays under company ownership means that they have a lot of control over how the product is maintained over time and disposed of at the end of life. The responsibility for the product is shared between the owner and the user.

Producer + Consumer Responsibility

Stewardship

While warranties are available for certain categories of products, they are rare in commercial goods and very rarely extend to cover the entire lifetime of the product. Increasing producer responsibility is one tool to discourage design for obsolescence or rapid failure. When the producer gets the product back at the end of life, suddenly many opportunities for recycling, repair, material recapture, and re-manufacturing emerge. 

Reusability

Products that can be repurposed for alternate uses once their original function has been fulfilled, or perhaps in concurrence with their original function, offer the user versatility and efficiency. Perhaps it is not the entire product but a specific component that has a second or third life after the first. These strategies are often discovered by consumers out of innovation or convenience, like a damaged cup or bowl that can be repurposed for organization and storage, but they can be planned by the designer as well.

Try it!

The strategies don’t stop here but we hope this gives you a taste of what sustainable design can look like. Consider these strategies, and assess their potential for use in your design projects. Assess your own purchases for signs of these tools in use. It can be challenging but it can also trigger great innovations and a fundamentally better design. It is deeply rewarding to create and support sustainable design.

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Design Object Series N. 001

The Ford Probe, the London Eye + the High Line

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. After spending months focusing on women we admire in the design industry, we decided to flip the script and shift our focus to the objects designed by such women, allowing the story of the object to reveal the impact that is possible through intelligent, empathetic design. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to the design industry have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three contemporary designs and the innovative women behind them: the Ford Probe, designed by Mimi Vandermelon in 1992, the London Eye, designed by Julia Barfield in 1998, and the High Line, designed by Elizabeth Diller in 2014.

The Ford Probe

promotional image of Ford Probe by Mimi Vandermelon, 1992
The Ford Probe was designed by Mimi Vandermelon in 1992. Photo courtesy of aldenjewell.

In the late 1980s the shortcomings of the classic Mustang were increasingly evident to Ford developers. New models from Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Toyota brought front or all-wheel drive, turbochargers, and other new technology to the market. These efficient coupes had better mileage and gas prices were on the rise. The Mustang, originally launched in the 1960s, was slated for a replacement that would involve a complete redesign. Ford worked with Mazda to develop the Mustang SN8, a front-wheel drive sports car built in the United States that used an existing front-wheel drive platform from one of Mazda’s best-selling sedan models at the time. 

Just as production was about to begin, images of the design were leaked to an automotive magazine and thousands of outraged, die-hard Mustang fans flooded the Ford offices with complaints. Although they had already submitted an order for thousands of units, the response from the customer base was so negative that Ford canceled the Mustang redesign and pivoted, marketing the car as a new model; the Ford Probe. After side-stepping the Mustang debacle, the 1989 Probe was released with great success, and was scheduled to be redesigned in 1993. 

lifestyle image of the 1993 Probe driving up a hill
Photo courtesy of IFHP97.

Ford wanted a lighter, sportier look, and tapped Mimi Vandermolen, who had recently led the interior design of the 1986 Ford Taurus to great acclaim. Ford called the Taurus “a rounded edge revolution” and it was a catalyst for the explosion of oval-inspired styling that has dominated the market ever since. It was one of the earliest models to be developed by a cross-disciplinary team, meaning that the designers working on the exterior worked in concert with those working on the interior, and engineers, dealers, and promoters were also included. Vandermolen was the designer who realized that the key to a successful design would be to have the aesthetic of the interior reflect the lines and styling of the exterior. She thought explicitly about designing the car for women and told her boss, “If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman, that’ll make it that much easier for a man to use.”

When they brought Vandermolen on, the Ford Design Studio hadn’t hired a woman in twenty years—not since World War II. Vandermolen was one of very few female designers in the automotive industry.  She is famous for thinking first about whether or not the internal controls were friendly for the user, and much of what we think of as standard ergonomics for car interiors—which were originally designed for the convenience of engineers and not drivers—we owe to her influence. 

The London Eye

Design Objects: London Eye
The London Eye was designed by Julia Barfield in 1998. Photo courtesy of jimmyharris.

Mimi Vandermelon’s use of ovoid curves shifted the aesthetic of car design in the US, and a circle is the ultimate curve. The London Eye is a massive circle on the London skyline, reminding us how beautiful and how unusual a circle is in this urban context. From 1999, when it was built, to 2006, the London Eye was the tallest ferris wheel in the world, measuring 443 feet in height. The vantage point of the highest observation position provides a stunning view of London and the Eye remains a popular tourist attraction to this day, often credited with the boom in ferris wheel construction that followed its success.

In 1993, wife and husband team Julia Barfield and David Marks submitted the concept to a competition for a new London landmark to celebrate the then impending millenium. Though no winner was declared, Marks and Barfield undertook the construction themselves, locating a site on the south bank of the Thames river. Originally the installation was only meant to stand for five years but the overwhelming popularity of the attraction led it to be preserved and, in 2006, illuminated with LED lights so as to be a landmark on the London skyline at night as well as during the day.

The London Eye is lit up at night
Thousands of LEDs make the London Eye a distinct element in the London skyline day or night. Photo courtesy of otrocalpe.

The wheel of the Eye measures 394 feet and is connected to a central hub with 64 cables. 32 passenger cabins are mounted along the wheel, a number that is symbolic of the 32 boroughs that make up Greater London. The wheel rotates at just two revolutions per hour, allowing each passenger a long look at the historic city.

The High Line

The High Line: Elizabeth Diller, 2014
The High Line was designed by Elizabeth Diller in 2014. Photo courtesy of joevare.

Like the London Eye, the High Line is an iconic installation in a giant city that makes incredible use of public, outdoor space. Where the London Eye provides a stunning overview of the city from a high vantage point, the High Line provides a gently elevated perspective; not like the view from the Empire State Building, but not like a view from any other park in NYC, either. The urban landscape rises up around visitors to this elevated park, the buildings becoming like trees and shrubs as they integrate with the native plant life. The High Line is a 1.45 mile long greenway suspended above the city sidewalks, repurposing old train lines that were scheduled for demolition before the proposal for a park went through. It is not only a park but a public space for arts, community events, food, plants, and convenient access points to the neighborhoods below. The elevated train lines, developed in the 1930s, were in decline throughout the 60s and 70s and completely defunct by the 80s. In 1999 CSX Transportation, the owner of the elevated rail line, invited proposals for recreational renovation, and in the early 2000s the land was rezoned as a public park. The non-profit conservancy Friends of the High Line was founded to oversee the development of the park. The founders noticed that, while considered by many to be an eyesore, wild plants were thriving on the abandoned rail line. A team that included a landscape architecture firm, a planting designer, and a design studio came together to create a unique public park dedicated to native plant species. The planting designer was Piet Oudolf, the Dutch plantsman famous for a revolution in the use of grasses and native plants.

Black eyed Susans pepper the High Line
The High Line is planted with a thoughtful range of native species that shift and change with the seasons. Photo courtesy of Andreas Komodromos.

The design studio was Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary studio that combines architecture as well as visual and performing arts. Elizabeth Diller is an architect famous for her “alternative strategies in space-making.” She took an interest in activism and community issues early in life, and carried a passion for social activism into her career as an architect and designer. Through her subversive lens, anything could be architecture. Of the practice she founded with her husband, Richard Scofidio, she explained, “We wanted to question habits of space.” She questions the very concepts of space and architecture to expand our ideas of what these terms can signify, how they can be integrated into the landscape, and how they can impact our daily lives.

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