Redesigning surfaces for a COVID-proof future  

These designers are rethinking the surfaces we touch and turning them into COVID-killing materials, which can be fabricated as familiar objects.

From avoiding touching door handles, to sanitising shared workstations and turning off taps with elbows, caution around surfaces has been drilled into us since the very start of the coronavirus pandemic.

And for good reason too – studies on coronaviruses, like Sars-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 crisis), Sars and Mers, have found viruses can last as long as nine days on certain surfaces that haven’t been properly disinfected.

The longer a virus sits on a surface, the more chance it has of spreading and a recent study published by Imperial College London gives evidence to this fact. In the experiment, scientists learned how viral DNA left on a hospital bed rail in an isolation room had spread to 18 other surfaces within just 10 hours.

At first glance, the issue of surfaces and COVID-19 appears to be a scientific one – something we’ll only really be able to get a handle on as we continue to learn more about the virus at hand and how it can be treated. But as a growing number of innovative projects suggest, the challenge has design solutions too.


“A sticky menu in a burger joint”

It was back in November of last year, long before the coronavirus outbreak earned international pandemic status, when Buckinghamshire-based print and packaging specialist Bodee began work on its pioneering antibacterial print technology. As Bodee director Pauline Sharratt tells Design Week, the idea began with “a sticky menu in a burger joint”.

“Our managing director had ordered a meal, and while waiting for it was turning over and over in his mind just how many people could have touched the menu he held, and then gone on to eat with those same hands,” she says. “It got us thinking about how an antibacterial technology could be integrated into the printing process.”

Work began on the technology, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic reiterated to the team the need to “get this out into the world”, Sharratt says. Lab tests were held up initially because of wider COVID-19 testing, but the innovation was finally signed off in March, having passed scientific scrutiny.

Serge Ferrari

“Another element to add to that safe environment”

Sharratt explains that for Bodee, antibacterial printing methods are a “key part of the jigsaw” in a world looking to cope with, and move beyond, the pandemic.

“You have your hand washing and sanitiser practices, your masks and face guards, and your dividing screens — this technology is just another element to add to that safe environment,” she says.

Antibacterial surfaces themselves aren’t necessarily new. As Sharratt points out, other technologies are an option for printers. But these technologies often fail when they come into contact with water. In a busy hospitality environment, school or care home, for example, that’s a big risk to take.

“These technologies often become less effective with time, or lose their antibacterial properties when they come into contact with moisture — even a sweaty hand can stop sections of a surface from working effectively,” Sharratt says.

Bodee’s technology, on the other hand, is integrated into the seal of printed products and becomes part of the structure of the material. In this way, she says antibacterial protection can be assured for “the lifetime” of any given item.

Serge Ferrari

An “open mind and scientific creativity”

If antibacterial printed surfaces are one part of a larger jigsaw, antibacterial furniture is another key element. This is where French fabric and material designer Serge Ferrari has chosen to focus its attention.

As Sébastien Baril, senior vice president of marketing and digital transformation at Serge Ferrari, tells Design Week, the company has a lengthy history of offering “flexible membranes”, which can for example be fire-proof or antifungal. Such experience meant the team had “some scientific knowledge on sanitary issues”, so when the pandemic hit, research and development (R&D) turned to an antiviral membrane.

“[We thought] it could help people in this difficult lockdown situation, but also companies, shops and all public areas even more at the end of the lockdown,” Baril says.

But while Serge Ferrari had previously used science as a base for its fabrics, working in the context of a pandemic was a whole new experience – one that Baril says required an “open mind and scientific creativity”.

“To explore all possible options [we had to] think out of the box, but at the same time we needed to be rigorous and to find a fast response, within a month, to the pandemic situation,” he says.

Serge Ferrari

Applications of the technology

Serge Ferrari’s membrane promises to reduce the viral load of coronaviruses by 95% after 15 minutes, and by 99.5% after one hour. This is done through the technology’s use of silver particles, which have been tested by a specialist viricidal laboratory.

Some applications for the technology are obvious – Serge Ferrari will, for example, be bringing the membranes into its work with healthcare facilities and hospitals. The list of products will include partition screens, blinds, washable mattresses and stretchers.

But beyond that, Baril explains the use of technology could be “much larger”, with the membrane designed to be used in harmony with the company’s other products.

“The viricide solution developed will be able to be implemented on Serge Ferrari fabrics used in places receiving the public such as schools, nurseries, offices, shops, cultural and leisure areas as well as public transport,” he says.

Serge Ferrari

“This isn’t just about COVID-19”

With both Bodee and Serge Ferrari’s surface innovations, the focus is split between dealing with the pandemic right now, but also moving beyond it in the future. An acute awareness of surfaces as a means of viral transmission has been drilled into our public consciousness throughout 2020, and that’s not something people will likely forget in a hurry.

Early on in the pandemic timeline, many were singing the praises of copper, which has for millennia been recognised for its antibacterial properties. But having restaurants and bars refitted and covered in the metal is of course an unrealistic goal, not to mention an uncomfortable one.

For Sharratt, she says it’s about getting people back to some kind of familiarity, with consideration for how things have changed.

“This isn’t just about COVID-19,” says Sharratt. “It’s about our modern world, and what people will be conscious of moving forward.”

Sharratt’s comments echo a topic discussed on Design Week earlier this month: that confidence needs to be designed back into public spaces as we move out of lockdown.

She says, “The way we see it, places like hotels and bars and restaurants aren’t going to be able to solve all their problems with a voucher from Rishi Sunak – they need to convince people they’re a safe place to be in.

“Technologies like this help assure people with an added layer of protection.”

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  • Nicola July 16, 2020 at 4:14 pm

    Great idea – antibacterial print is a no-brainer.

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