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Transcendental Tunes

How familiar music and digital jewelry can help Alzheimer sufferers forge emotional bonds with their catetakers. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 26-08-2010

Mexican designer José de la O graduated this summer from Eindhoven Design Academy’s IM Master’s programme headed by Gijs Bakker.

“I was studying industrial design in Mexico and Gijs came to the university to talk about Droog and Dutch design,” says De la O.  “I knew straight away that it would be my first choice school.”

The experience has been a good one.  “I think for international students the Master’s course is better than the Bachelor’s programme,” O says.  “I know it is changing, but in Eindhoven the Bachelor’s is more about producing rockstar designers. Some people do achieve that, but for the rest, after that sort of education, it is hard to find a job in a normal studio … I like that I already had my methods and could just learn to apply them differently.”

The inspiration for De la O’s graduation project, “Transcendental Tunes” came after visiting his great aunt back in Mexico who is living with Alzheimer’s disease. “My cousin is her primary caretaker and I was really struck by her explanation of the emotional burden caring for my aunt poses.”

De la O returned to the Netherlands keen to develop a concept that altered the way emotion is used in design.  “You hear about emotional design,” he says.  “But that only ever refers to the relationship between the user and the object.  What I wanted to do was use design as a medium to satisfy emotional needs between people, albeit using objects." 

De la O bases his idea around the premise that people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose their memories, but their capacity to reach them.  “So I wanted to use design to enhance existing stimuli,” he says.

De la O turned to cognitive psychologists, scientists and caretakers to learn more about the debilitating disease.  “I learned that the part of the brain that stores familiar music, memories and emotions is the last to deteriorate over the course of the disease," he says.  'This is why music elicits strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s to the point that they can evoke emotional-autobiographical memories.”

Armed with this knowledge, De la O set about designing objects that could, in a way, carry a message between two people thus creating an interpersonal bond.  He came up with a wooden box that resembles and old-school radio.  Attached is a removable jewel that acts like an antenna.

The caretaker selects a song and stores it on the digital jewel.  When the jewel is placed on the wooden box the mechanism is triggered and the music plays. The jewel not only activates the music, but carries a meaningful connection for the caretaker.

When the patient continuously hears the music, he or she will link it to the caretaker who in turn feels bonded with the patient knowing that there is a new sort of communication going on.

“It looks like an old radio because Alzheimer’s patients need to be able to recognize objects,” De la O says.  “It’s really important to design with the patients’ past in mind.  A musical device cannot be white with curved edges and a flat screen.  Not only would they not recognize it, but they would get anxious about it.”

De la O’s “Transcendental Tunes” also toys with the idea that jewelry does not need to be wearable.  It can also be about history.

Together with other designers De la O has formed a collective called Ant Hill, which will present an exhibition titled The Superorganism at Dutch Design Week.  For Dutch Design Double De la O will participate in the Inside Design Amsterdam event at the Lloyd Hotel.

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