Since its founding in 2015, the Healthy Materials Lab (HML) at The New School’s Parsons School of Design has worked to put human health at the center of all design decisions by encouraging industries to reduce the use of toxic substances in building products.
HML has partnered with a local the nonprofit group and architect in Minneapolis to build a new affordable housing complex, worked with the New York City Housing Authority to redesign an early childhood learning centers in the Bronx, and collaborated with Parsons’ Design Workshop to transform the entrance hall of Children’s Museum of the Arts, among other projects.
“HML is breaking new ground by incorporating human health into an expanded definition of sustainability in building design and construction,” says Alison Mears, HML’s director, and Jonsara Ruth, the lab’s design director. “Architects, real estate developers, interior designers, and materials manufacturers are recognizing our work and using it to inform their decisions about the materials they use in the construction of new buildings.”
HML’s work is one of the many ways Parsons faculty members, students, and alumni are using design to address human health needs. In addition to launching HML, individuals from Parsons have created fashion designs for people with physical disabilities, a hospital gown that is more patient friendly, and a culinary design curriculum aimed at improving access to healthful food and promoting equity in the local food system.
“Our students, faculty members, and alumni are demonstrating how the innovative use of design and cross-disciplinary collaboration can lead to solutions to some of society’s most urgent health issues,” says Parsons Executive Dean Joel Towers. “This focus on socially engaged design and technology is what makes Parsons unique.”
The following is a closer look at various healthcare-related design initiatives at Parsons:
Healthy Materials Lab works with partners — industry and corporate leaders, nonprofit organizations, and building owners — to identify and eliminate avoidable toxics from building materials, promote less harmful elements, and support the creation of new materials for use in the construction sector. Most recently, HML has launched educational programming at Parsons; created online resources through a newly updated website; and worked with a range of government agencies, manufacturers, architects, and designers to change design and construction practices.
Open Style Lab is dedicated to creating functional wearable solutions for people of all abilities without compromising on style. The lab brings together students in Parsons’ Fashion Design, Fine Arts, Product Design, and Transdisciplinary Design programs; designers, engineers, and occupational therapists; and people with disabilities to conceive and create accessible wearables. The lab’s work includes education, research and innovation, and awareness raising. Last year, Open Style Lab worked with Christina Mallon, a New York City professional with flail arm syndrome, to create Swipe, a device that allows her to swipe her MetroCard on her own (the project was presented at #SXSW).
Care+Wear is a start-up launched by Lucy Jones, BFA Fashion ’15, that “makes innovative healthwear to create more positive and effective healing experiences for patients everywhere.” Care+Wear shares a portion of its profits with its partner foundations, which are leaders in medical research and education. Recently, Care+Wear partnered with Parsons fashion students to redesign the patient gown. The redesigned product opens in the front, has a shielding pleat in the back, replaces five types of gowns with one, and allows for partial exposure through the use of ties and snaps.
Parsons x UNFPA x Hela, is a collaboration between the leading art and design school, the United Nations Population Fund, and the undergarment manufacturer to produce a new menstrual undergarment for refugees in Africa. The product will be co-designed with women in refugee camps, who will provide real-time feedback about the garment.
Blank Plate, created by Amy Findeiss, Eulani Labay, and Mai Kobori (all MFA Transdisciplinary Design ’12), is a program that works with communities to promote access to healthful food and equity in the local food system through a ten-week culinary design curriculum. After five years of developing the program with the Hunt’s Point Community, the three Parsons alumni were recognized with the prestigious Sappi Ideas that Matter’s Grant.
Thomy, created by Renata Souza, BFA Product Design ‘17, is an insulin kit for children with type 1 diabetes that uses temporary tattoos to help children remember where they have previously injected the insulin, avoiding complications at injection sites. It also includes an insulin pen designed specifically for a child’s hand. Both products are user friendly and add a bit of fun and whimsy to the process of managing a difficult condition.
Soapen, the creation of Amanat Anand, Junho Byun, Yogita Agrawal, and Shubham Issar, BFA Product Design ’15, is a wearable and portable “soap crayon” that promotes hand washing among children by tapping into their creativity. The designers first took the product to municipal schools in Mumbai, India, where they were met by enthusiastic children — and thankful teachers. They have since won the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge and were finalists in for The James Dyson Award.
The Biodesign Challenge iis a science fair–style competition that offers art and design students the opportunity to envision future applications of biotechnology. Led by Jane Pirone, dean of Parsons’ School of Design Strategies, and Parsons faculty member Jenifer Wightman, students shared projects that were the culmination of a semester spent envisioning how cells, microbes, and other living things can be used to remake the products and processes of our made world (the competition was featured in Fast Company).
BlueGuard was launched by Noah Litvin, MFA Transdisciplinary Design ’17, and Quentin Northcross, MA Psychology ’17, in response to the growing opioid crisis in the United States. Designed to prevent overdose deaths, it gives a user two minutes from the time he or she takes an opiod to activate a device signaling that he or she is not overdosing; if the user fails to do so, an emergency contact is alerted to the user’s GPS location and can offer assistance. The device can also be used to request a phone call with mental health and substance abuse counselors who can provide support to the user.
The winner of the Disrupt Aging Design Challenge, Camila Chiriboga, BFA Fashion ’17, created inclusive designs for blind and visually impaired people. The competition, jointly sponsored by Parsons and the AARP, challenged students to create designs that meet the needs of older people while combating stereotypes relating to age and fashion. Students spent a semester developing the designs, working in collaboration with different populations of older adults (Chiriboga was featured in Metropolis).