A group of Interior Design and Textiles students have collaboratively created a wearable shelter for refugees. The design has three functions: when laid out it forms a sleeping bag; the insertion of lightweight kite-rods into specific seams transform it into a temporary dwelling; and it can be worn as a coat, with large pockets for important items, such as passports and personal documents.

The design brief was instigated by Judith Balcazar, Director of Design at Wall London. This led to a joint project between Wall London and the RCA’s Interior Design Master’s programme, in which Interior Design and Textiles students were challenged to develop designs for wearable shelters/habitations clothing that addressed some of the challenges faced by millions displaced people around the world. ‘This project demonstrates the keenness of students to use their design talent to make a difference where it matters,’ said Senior Tutor Harriet Harriss. ‘The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian crisis that needs as many spirited acts of compassion as possible to help address the problem. Our students are determined to see their inventiveness form part of the solution.’


Identity pockets wearable Shelter © Royal College Of Art

Teams of Interior Design and Textiles students were invited to take part in a one-week intensive design workshop to develop ‘wearable habitations’. This ‘hackathon’ encouraged students to innovate imaginative propositions for a wearable design that would provide adaptable shelter, whilst taking affordability into consideration and using sustainable materials where possible.

The students’ proposals were informed by input from Médecins Sans Frontières who provided insight into the challenges faced by refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. Discussing his experience of the workshop, Interior Design student Ruben Van Den Bossche explained: ‘I believe it is important to use creativity to design solutions to the problems faced by refugees in the current humanitarian crisis of Europe. Lack of adequate, watertight shelter and warm, waterproof clothing is a major issue in refugee camps across Europe.’

The three strongest design proposals to emerge from the hackathon were integrated to create a single coherent design. The final prototype is made from Tyvek – a strong, breathable, waterproof material – and is insulated, with Mylar – a type of polyester used for insulation in houses and tents, as well as in spacesuits and emergency blankets.

Refugee composite

Refugee composite wearable Shelter © Royal College Of Art

WALL Fashion London supported the initial development of the coat and funded the making of a factory-ready prototype. A Kickstarter campaign, which ( ended ) on 19 February, is aiming to raise further funds to manufacture and distribute the coats. (‘While our wearable won’t solve the whole problem it addresses a small part of it,’ Harriss explained. ‘It’s a conspicuous, provocative design also acts as a kind of spotlight on the crisis, serving as a reminder to us all about the need to continue to press forward in finding an integrated and lasting solution to the problem.’)

The project exemplifies the socially engaged and practical approach to interior design at the RCA. Giulia Silovy, one of the students involved in the project explained: ‘While creating positive change we also have the ability to dispel the misconception that as interior designers we are merely relegated to furnishings and textiles. This project shows we are trained to look at spatial inefficiencies and boost their uses.’

Head of Programme Graeme Brooker, expanded: ‘Through the projects we undertake on the Interior Design programme at the RCA, we challenge our students to reflect upon their own concerns in the wider world and how, as designers, they may attempt to affect meaningful, thoughtful changes to people’s lives.’

Royal College Of Art

Royal College Of Art

The Royal College of Art, in London, is one of the world’s most renowned universities of art and design. Specialising in teaching and research, RCA provides postgraduate and pre-/mid-professional education for artists and designers.

View Profile