I found Graham Pullin’s challenge to the engineers, designers and artists of the world to come together and rethink the way we approach the creation of objects that address disability fascinating. It seems a challenge tailor made to the ITP student body.
Pullin states that the status quo in the industry is currently function above form to the point of negating design itself. The technology is king and design focuses on invisibility. The medical and engineering community has ignored the artist and designer communities in the creation of it’s wheel chairs, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids. The artists themselves have generally been disinterested in a field of design that prizes invisibility.
The industry further works on an assumption that all their clients want the same thing – basically aids that attempt to call the least amount attention to themselves. This has led to conventions such as the peachy pink and clammy plastics of the prosthetic world. But as Pullin points out, not all users want the same thing and these objects would benefit from the variety the creativity of artists and designers could bring. He offers as an example an amputee who dreaded the moment when someone would notice that she had a prosthetic hand, the illusion of it’s pink plastic only lasting so long. For her, Pullin would recommend an artist designed ostentatious golden prosthetic, one that would immediately identify itself as man made, but also suggest beauty and individuality. He suggests turning the classic designer’s challenge, the chair, into a wheelchair challenge, an ingenious suggestion.
Pullin identifies the current most successful crossover of design and disability as the eyeglasses. In the past couple decades, eyeglasses have gone from medical device to fashion accessory, used by the visually impaired and the fully abled alike. Glasses come in a dizzying variety of colors and styles, and have been embraced by the trendy and fashionable worlds. What if wheelchairs could find the same success, Pullin asks. What if people walked around with trendy, individualized hearing aids in their ears?
Pullin’s book put in mind examples from two of my other classes this week. In our puppets class we studied the work of the German Dada artists who created artworks with puppets and were highly influenced by the horrors of World War I and their encounters with amputees returning from battle. One example of such a work was Heartfield and Grosz’s “The Conformist Turned Wild Heartfield” (1920), a mannequin made to suggest a soldier crippled by war, various antiques attached to replace nonexistent limbs. Pullin’s book also has me thinking of our reading for Pcomp last week – the argument that beautiful things work better, made by Norman in his Emotion & Design article. Pullin seems to suggest the same, that aids that were more attractive would have greater usage and functionality for everyone.
The marriage of fashion and disability design that Pullin suggests is interesting and alluring. It could potentially be a successful endeavor, both in making money and in creating more acceptance in the culture for these aids. But it also feels a bit problematic, potentially fetishizing these objects and enclosing them in an industry driven by consumer culture and advertising. When I look at the pictures in the book of Aimee Mullin’s beautiful prosthetic legs made of solid glass or ornately carved wood, I am envious. A part of me wistfully thinks “I wish I was an amputee so that I could wear those.” When I think more about it, it is quite a disquieting thought.