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Artists Put a New Spin on Wheelchairs

By Serena Fox

Imagine wearing the same shoes every day of your life. “For my sister, her wheelchair is an extension of her body,” says designer Ailbhe Keane. “Dressing her wheels is like putting on a new pair of boots.”

That’s the idea behind Izzy Wheels, an Irish company that aims to transform the wheelchair from a medical device into a form of artistic self-expression. Founded by Ailbhe and her sister Isabel Keane, the online shop sells colorful, easily interchanged wheelchair spoke guards that feature designs by illustrators and artists from around the world. 

Isabel and Ailbhe Keane launched Izzy Wheels to help people turn their wheelchairs into personal fashion statements.

Their tagline, “If you can’t stand up, stand out!” was inspired by Isabel, who was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from her waist down. Growing up, she was frustrated by how little was available to personalize her chair. “I don’t want my chair to look like it was made in a hospital, I want it to look like a piece of fashion,” says Isabel, who today serves as brand ambassador and spokesperson (no pun intended) for the company that bears her name.

She says that Izzy Wheels challenges common negative associations and lets wheelchair users celebrate their individuality by personalizing the source of their independence. Rather than be seen as the “unfortunate girl in a wheelchair, I am now seen as a stylish person with cool wheels,” Isabel explains. “They reflect the relationship I have with my wheelchair.”

Click the photo to watch a quick video featuring several spoke cover designs and brand ambassador Isabel Keane.

“We are creating a fashion brand for one of the world’s most underserved communities of people,” says Ailbhe Keane, who at age 24 is the company’s creative director and business manager. “There are so many people who are getting behind us and want to help us achieve our mission.”

One of those supporters is Fuchsia MacAree, an illustrator who acted as something of a mentor to Ailbhe and was an enthusiastic contributor to the company’s first design collection. “The tone of Izzy Wheels is what makes it work, I think,” she says. “The lighthearted approach has a twofold effect: It empowers a young wheelchair user to make a statement about themselves, and it makes a wheelchair a friendly-looking object rather than one that’s purely functional. Design can have a huge role in dispelling feelings of fear of the unknown, and Izzy Wheels opens up a natural opportunity for wheelchair users to talk about their experiences. It's loud, fun, and makes sure there's no elephant in the room.”

Illustrators Fuchsia MacAree (left) and Steve Simpson (right) chose similar color palettes but very different styles for their wheel covers.

Another fan is Steve Simpson, a designer who saw the startup first take shape while teaching at Ailbhe’s design school. “I thought it was a fantastic idea and wanted to support it in any way I could,” says Simpson, who also contributed a design to the first collection. “I like ideas that are fresh, that give a different slant to a stereotypical view of things. And I think that can only be realized by people who are close to a subject, passionate about it, as Ailbhe is to Izzy Wheels. It needs to be personal.”

Other companies, of course, do offer wheelchair spoke guards. But they tend to be expensive, child-focused, and are not designed to be easily swapped out. Izzy Wheels designs are priced at about $135 apiece and attach with Velcro straps that make it easy for the user to attach and remove the wheel covers while sitting down.

Ailbhe Keane came up with the idea as her final project at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design. “I spent a year trying all sorts of prototypes,” she remembers. “I tried pop-up wheels, kind of like an origami book, because I love working in 3D. One had a cord you could pull, so when you’re sitting in the wheelchair, you could make the design pop out. It looked great, but it wasn’t very practical.” Ailbhe also prototyped a polished curved-aluminum extruded axel guard designed to reflect the illustrations, so the wheelchair user could watch them go around without leaning over. 

This art from the Summer 2017 collection is by Marylou Faure (United Kingdom), Jess Phoenix (United States), and Maser (Ireland and U.S.).

“In the end, the thing that took off was the wheel cover,” she says. The flat, round, plastic discs are durable, scratchproof, fade-resistant, and easy to manufacture and print—what Ailbhe calls a perfect canvas. “You can put whatever you want on them. In the beginning, I made the designs as animations, like a zoetrope or a praxinoscope. The earliest form of animation was done on wheels, so I was playing with the idea of what I could do with the shape in terms of the movement.”

Ailbhe posted her final designs online and was overwhelmed with messages from people all over the world asking how they could purchase the covers. “I realized that we had to try this,” she says. “So after I finished college, we set up an online ordering business.”

In consultation with Isabel, Ailbhe designed the first collection to coordinate with holidays, favorite outfits (a new pink jacket set the color scheme for one design), and even the family dog. “It really was mostly for Isabel,” she says. “But I had wheelchair users write me and suggest what they’d like, and I didn’t want it to be just my vision.”

Eager to speak to as many users as possible, Ailbhe set up a series of wheel design workshops. “We went into special needs schools and helped people create their own designs for their wheels. You could design your own chair or a friend’s. At that point, seeing how happy it made the users, we just got really passionate about this business. Everyone loves personalizing their bag or their clothes, and this is no different. It’s empowering to express yourself.” (Shown here, Isabel and spoke guards illustrated by Hawaii-based Kim Sielbeck.)

That’s when she got the idea of collaborating with well-known artists. She approached MacAree and Simpson and asked them to contribute designs. “They said yes immediately and gave me a lot of guidance when I was putting together the business,” says Ailbhe. With the first two big names on board, other artists quickly followed suit. “A lot of them were people I was following on Behance and whose work I loved,” she remembers. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe how much they believed in our project, and how willing they were to be a part of it. I don’t think anyone turned me down.”

In the end, nine artists contributed to the first collaboration series, creating eye-catching designs that ranged from a tongue-and-cheek spinning dog chasing a car wheel to a pastel jungle scene. Izzy Wheels launched the collection in September 2016 and has sold hundreds of the covers, taking orders from across Europe and the USA. A portion of the proceeds is donated to the Irish Wheelchair Association and several other charities. Ailbhe says the collaborating artists tell her they love being part of the project both because it feels good to help and because they get a kick out of seeing their art on wheelchairs around the world.

These spoke guards from Izzy Wheels’s first artist collection are by Dublin illustrators Paula McGloin, Conor Merriman, and Ruan Van Vliet.    

“It’s great to be involved in something that has a positive effect for under-represented groups, especially in a fun way,” says MacAree. “Illustration’s role in a project is often to lighten a mood or add some quirks into an otherwise ordinary scene, and this project was a great space to explore that in. It was also interesting designing something in a circle that had to make sense no matter which way was up, so the design really had to be led by the form.”

Simpson agrees. “I love projects where lots of different artists get involved,” he says. “I’ve always wondered why advertising doesn’t use that more, because you get such a wonderful range of styles and techniques and color palettes and ideas. You get a diversity of viewpoints and an energy that can really lift a project.”

For his design, Simpson chose an intricate orange and yellow repeating pattern that was originally inspired by a William Morris wallpaper design. “I’d worked on the design in my sketchbook and had planned on making umbrellas based on that piece. But when Ailbhe approached me, I decided it would work much better on a wheelchair. I love patterns, and I don’t get a chance to work on them as often as I’d like.”

With the high-profile collection online, says Ailbhe, Izzy Wheels saw a leap in name recognition. “Things kind of exploded here in Ireland last year,” she remembers. “We got in all the papers, on YouTube, on national television.”

They also started winning awards, including first place in Ireland’s Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow competition.  Part of the prize was a coveted studio-office space, free for the first six months, in the National Digital Research Center, a new hub for start-ups in Dublin’s city center that Ailbhe calls “just brilliant—the best place to be because you’re surrounded by all this amazing digital innovation and energy.” 

More art from the Summer 2017 collection, by Brosmid (Spain) and Bodil Jane (the Netherlands).

This year, Izzy Wheels was accepted into the Enterprise Ireland Entrepreneur Programme, a government project that gives promising start-ups free training in the mechanics of marketing and running a business. “I’m so grateful for the support, because it’s escalated so quickly, it’s really 24/7 and very busy right now,” says Ailbhe. “I’m 24, I never expected to be running a business so young. The fun part is doing the actual designs. The financials, the pitching, the website, the marketing, the photo shoots, I’m still learning to wear all those hats. But I’m surprised how much I like that part, as well.”

Ailbhe says she splits her time between her design studio and the nearby print shop that manufactures the spoke guards. “I do my illustrations in Adobe Illustrator CC, save them as PDF, and print directly onto the plastic substrate using a digital printer,” she explains. The print shop then applies a laminated coating and assembles the Velcro straps. “We’re print on demand,” says Ailbhe. “When someone places an order, we print and assemble it. Turnover is usually about 10 days.” The business is self-sustaining so far, she says, and with demand growing each month and an estimated 10 million wheelchair users across Europe and America, Izzy Wheels has a promising future.

The company has just rolled out a new suite of designs contributed by 13 international designers. “We chose a much wider mix of artists this time—painters, graffiti artists, and print designers, as well as illustrators,” Ailbhe says. “I gave them complete creative freedom. I sent them the blank disc and they could do whatever they wanted. When the pieces started coming in, I couldn’t believe the variety. They’re so beautiful.”

Now that the summer collection has launched, the dynamic Keane sisters will go to work on yet another innovation: Bespoked, an online platform that will let users design their own wheel covers from a wide range of print, pattern, color, and text elements. “We get requests for custom designs all the time,” says Ailbhe. “I tried to do them myself at first, but I couldn’t keep up. The sky is the limit with personalized designs, really. People want designs with a favorite activity, a photograph, someone they like, pets, the craziest things. I one time got a request for 100 prawns. Personalization is powerful.” They hope to launch the Bespoked app by the end of the year.

And after that? “We have loads of ideas,” laughs Ailbhe, who says she is currently playing with the idea of a whole collection featuring only tattoo artists. “It seems like a natural fit,” she says. “Tattoos are a way of personalizing your body. Izzy Wheels puts artwork not on your physical body, but on an extension of your body. So we’re all about personalizing your body in a different way.”

You can learn more about Izzy Wheels on the company website and explore Ailbhe Keane’s design work on Behance.