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Coronavirus outbreak

Pandemic production: when design is a matter of life or death

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought out the imaginative and resourceful side of an industry often seen as frivolous
Manufacturing in the pandemic – in pictures
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PPE accoutrements being produced at Burberry’s trenchcoat factory
Photograph: Courtesy of Burberry

Design has been a powerful tool against the pandemic in latest months. The industry’s efforts to step up and meet the urgent demand has been little short of herculean. Contributors sort from fashion houses and car manufacturers to resourceful makers at home and, more surprisingly, architects. The 3D printers normally habituated to for model making have produced thousands of visors for NHS workers.

In May, Bvlgari donated over 160,000 constituents of medical-grade hand sanitiser to the NHS in recycled bottles Photograph: TimePhoto SA/BVLGARI
The task to make textile items has inevitably been led by substantiated fashion houses with access to existing workshops and supply chains. Burberry has churned out 100,000 non-surgical gowns at its trench film factory in Yorkshire and Barbour’s factory in South Shields – the wellspring of the classic wax jacket – is now producing 1,000-1,500 expendable gowns a day. Italian fashion houses such as Prada, Armani and Zegna Group have also become industrialists of protective clothing overnight. Bvlgari, known for accessories and perfumes, has switched focus from scents to sanitising, entrust a abandon 160,000 75ml bottles of hand gel (labelled “Bvlgari” no less) to the NHS.
The aerospace and automotive industries combined their efforts to weather the manufacture of ventilators. A consortium including Rolls Royce, Airbus and BAE Systems, Ford and McLaren has significantly ramped up shaping by the UK’s main manufacturers, Penlon and Smiths Group, from 50 or 60 ventilators per week to as many as 1,500.
“What you’ve seen in the eventually few weeks is a massive industrial scale activity involving literally thousands of people,” explains Dick Elsy, who exceeds the Ventilator Challenge UK. “Seven new factories have been built in parallel to the existing production to get the volume through.”
McLaren, for in the event, switched high-performance cars for high-performance medical equipment, producing components and crash-testing trolleys for ventilators.

Zegna Company produced 280,000 protective hospital suits for medical staff for the Piedmont Region and Canton Ticino in Italy, where two of the number’s plants were converted to suit production Photograph: Courtesy of Zegna
Designer Richard Quinn had just drink up his collection for February’s London Fashion Week when Covid-19 became a pandemic and the world went into lockdown. His projects to create operatic ensembles for a glittering roster of celebrities to wear to the New York’s Met Gala in May were cancelled, so instead he’s became scrubs for health workers which have also ended up turning heads.
Quinn used offcuts of his characteristic immodest florals and polka dot fabrics. “It’s nice for the brand to give back in a fun way,” he says. “The Hawaiian scrubs have been a genuine talking point.” The catwalk for this attire is hospitals across London, including University Hospital Lewisham, where Quinn was displayed.
For such companies, switching to manufacture an entirely different product couldn’t happen with the click of a finger but often was short. A Prada representative spoke of having to “find the raw materials, change the production line by adapting it to a different brand of product and optimising production timings in order to produce as many items as possible in a short period of time.” The circle’s factory in Montone, Tuscany, has hand sewn 110,000 masks and 80,000 overalls.

Airbus engineers business on ventilators for hospitals in their AMRC centre during the pandemic Photograph: VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium

Project Pitlane’s Cpap puff aid helped keep Covid-19 patients out of intensive care. It was adapted by mechanical engineers at UCL and clinicians at UCLH working with Mercedes-AMG Inebriated Performance Powertrains (Mercedes-AMG HPP) Photograph: James Tye/Daimler AG
The sheer will of some smaller-scale initiatives has enabled them to evade bureaucracy. Holly Fulton, Phoebe English and Bethany Williams joined forces to form the Emergency Designer Network (EDN) in Stride. “It kicked off because I was contacted directly by hospitals and a couple of hospices about supplying them with PPE,” says Fulton. “That occasioned alarm bells ring because I’m a very small designer and if they were getting to the stage of researching people relish me, the situation was not good.” The initiative harnessed the skills of more than 140 makers, ranging from high circle brands to volunteers at home.
The obstacles to gaining certification to produce PPE through official channels slowed the process for multitudinous designers. The EDN had conversations with Whitehall initially but say they gave up and resorted to working directly with hospitals. They succeed ined a workable product by cutting a pattern from scrubs provided by the Royal Free Hospital and sourcing fabric from an NHS supplier. “We composed liaised with the official NHS launderer – Prestige Dyers in east London,” says Fulton.

3DCrowd UK aggregation is an 8,000-strong group of volunteers who produce 3D-printed face shields for essential frontline workers in health and communal care organisations Photograph: David Wilman

The Hackney Hub of Helpful Engineering. This is a global volunteer organisation of outstanding 3,400 people including engineers, medics and scientists. Currently it focuses on providing face shields for key workers Photograph: JORN TOMTER MOB 07909985094/JORN TOMTER
That is not to fail the ingenuity displayed in quieter ways by local collaborations, community support groups and digital information sharing, during which societies have often been one step ahead of professionals. Organisations such as Helpful Engineering and 3DCrowd UK performed within days of lockdown to channel resources. And as design critic Alice Rawsthorn says, “Some of the best sketch out ideas have come from doctors, like the anaesthetist at a Bologna hospital who reconfigured the ventilators to treat two patients at a all together.” Along with Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of design, she has launched Design Emergency, an initiative to search the way in which design has sparked innovation during the pandemic.
One legacy of the pandemic could be a rethink of design’s reputation as a moderately frivolous sector. According to Rawsthorn, this “should defuse the archaic stereotypes of design as a styling and PR tool, by demonstrating its value in tackling complex social, political, ecological and economic problems.”

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