The making of PPE: From designers to the frontline Part 2

How are designers and
companies able to transition seemingly overnight to produce PPE at such an
impactful scale? From LVMH producing hand sanitizer instead of perfume to
Brooks Brothers making up to 150,000 surgical masks per day, designers and
factories are doing everything they can during this critical time to give
back to their communities. Although the fashion and design industries have
been hit hard by the devastating economic impact brought on by Covid-19,
they have also been among the first ones to pull together the resources at
hand to make immense contributions to the global relief effort.

Most recently, and Chief Executive at Elle, Anja Khan, said in a
statement, “It’s important that businesses do their bit to support all
efforts to fight Covid-19. With such a huge demand for surgical masks for
frontline health care professionals, we wanted to ease this strain and
supply an ‘every day’ option as part of social distancing guidelines.”

FashionUnited interviewed via Zoom and email two companies situated at
the epicenters of the pandemic on what it took to design, create and
distribute protective gear. British heritage brand Mulberry has been sewing
reusable PPE gowns in its Somerset factories to support NHS frontline
workers and has produced around 12,000 gowns. In the second of this
two-part report, we spoke to the New York office of the internationally
renowned architecture, interiors and urban design firm, Skidmore Owings and
Merrill LLP (SOM). Since the beginning of April, SOM has donated 5,000
plastic face shields to frontline health care workers and care homes all
over the American East Coast.

Colin Koop (Design Partner, AIA) Photo © SOM |
Lucas Blair Simpson, Charles Harris (Architect)

Are there any similarities in the skill sets that designers and
architects already possess to those which were used to produce the plastic
face shields?

Koop: Architects all have mini fabrication spaces in their offices
because we rely on scale models, full-scale mock-ups, and a lot of other
devices to study our design ideas. In the last 10 years, architecture
studios have transformed those fabrication spaces with 3D printing, laser
cutting, and prototyping. The maker mentality has sort of infused itself
into the architecture and design profession.

This pandemic turned out to be a catalyst for designers and architects
to think differently about what we were using this very sophisticated
equipment for. There were a lot of people in our profession prototyping
protective gear, and face shields. There were even examples of designers
trying to 3D print ventilator valves.

This crisis has proven to be a time where people try to learn from each
other and crowdsource the best possible designs. It’s been an eye-opener to
see when you have so many minds spread around the globe each doing their
own version, design can quickly evolve from a 1.0 to a 3.0 version.

This pandemic turned out to be a catalyst for designers and
architects to think differently. It’s proven to be a time where people try
to learn from each other and crowdsource the best possible designs.

Colin Koop, Design Partner, AIA, Skidmore Owings and Merrill LLP

Can you explain the process that went into designing and making the

Koop: We had a strange reality which is that we were supposed to be
moving to a new office in April. We had packed up our model shop entirely
and put it into storage, so when this shelter in place reality occurred, we
were left without the machinery we needed to produce PPE. We ended up
working directly with a company called Arc Printing to prototype our
designs through them and then compensating them for the production.

Harris: We reached out to people that have partnered with us in the
past, especially those involved in printing and model making. We eventually
decided on Arc who are located right outside of New York City. They
appealed to us because of the material they had, laser cutting technology
and the ability to distribute large numbers very quickly- at peak, they
were producing 300 face shields a day for us. After a lot of research and
discussion, we settled on an all-plastic design that we thought would have
the most impact. The design was very straightforward, it was easily
cleanable and therefore reusable, and it was also easy to pack and ship.
These were all the factors that were most important to us.

The hospitals and care homes along America’s
Eastern Seaboard that SOM has donated plastic face shields

Did you face any challenges once the plastic face shields were

Harris: The biggest challenge for us was how to leverage our different
networks to distribute the plastic face shields and get them into the hands
of the right people. We put out a call to our staff to any hospitals they
knew in the community, where family members worked, or even the hospital
that cared for one of our colleagues who had the virus. We even looked
online and at community boards, made calls and ended up donating the
protective gear to care homes as well.

The biggest challenge for us was how to leverage our different
networks to distribute the plastic face shields. We put out a call to our
staff to any hospitals they knew in the community and where family members

Charles Harris, Architect, Skidmore Owings and Merrill LLP

What has been some of the feedback from designers and architects
involved with the relief effort during this time of crisis?

Koop: It’s been an incredibly positive and a galvanizing experience for
all of us. In particular, so many SOM employees have loved ones who are
healthcare workers and who might be first responders. This gave them an
opportunity to protect those people while doing their work as

In a time when everyone is working remotely in a completely virtual
environment, this sort of communal activity of giving back allows people to
stay connected to their colleagues and the communities.

For the architecture and design industry, do you foresee any permanent
shifts in values or ways of working once the economy reopens?

Koop: One thing that is very clear to me is that for a long time, health
care environments and health care products have not been prioritized by
many designers and architects. These are, just across the board, one of
the typologies that have been overlooked. One of the values that we hope
will come out of this is a lot more emphasis and broad-based interest in
design and architecture around health-care products and environments.
People deserve to be around well-designed objects and environments –
especially when they are sick and going through that difficulty. Then, we
may see those effects push out into other industries and become knowledge
that’ll be applied to all different types of projects, including
workplaces, schools, and airports.

I think that’s a huge benefit for humanity to have the best designers
and thinkers in the world focusing on that part of the human experience
which has been for too long left just to experts.

Read part 1 of this series with Mulberry by

Images: courtesy of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), Second image (left)
credited to Lucas Blair Simpson

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