Ask anyone searching for the perfect pair of frames, eyeglass shopping can be exhausting, especially if you have a nose that doesn't fit the (very) narrow mold. "I didn't particularly like how they sat on my nose. They just seemed to float above and not rest on it, so I ended up avoiding wearing any at all," laments South African, Berlin-based designer Ackeem Ngwenya, co-creator of REFRAMD, an "Afropolitan" eyewear brand specializing in frames for Black face shapes. What many don't know is that traditional off-the-shelf and ready-to-order eye frames are designed to fit "Caucasian" nasal features, which are often narrow, with high bridges, so people with low and wide bridges, like Black and Southeast Asian customers, are often left without well-fitting options, and a whole lot of frustration. With REFRAMD, live on Kickstarter until July 15, Ngwenya seeks to create eyewear products that cater to the Black community and underrepresented groups of all face shapes and sizes.
Ngwenya, a trained product designer who studied innovation design engineering at the Royal College of Art, and Imperial College London, sees REFRAMD as a natural outgrowth of the unmet needs of the current direct-to-consumer eyewear revolution. "The idea came to me when I was jotting down some concepts I wanted to explore for a project. I focused on pain points I had experienced and wanted to eliminate," he adds, explaining that while REFRAMD was born of personal frustration, it soon sparked a larger mission and motivating force. "I use creativity as a problem-solving tool in framing the world to see possibilities and drive innovation where scarcity exists," he says, explaining that better adapted eye frames are just the beginning in a practice that champions inclusivity as well as function and design.
The basic concept driving REFRAMD is that each of us has a unique facial "landscape" full of the bumps and bridges that make us us, and that deserve care and customization without an exorbitant price tag. REFRAMD captures each customer's facial geometry with a 3D model generated from an algorithm that runs on parametric design principles and is based on a picture snapped right from your cell phone, care of a virtual try-on (VT-O) function compatible with any device or browser. After uploading, the proprietary software adjusts the frame's design to fit your face's exact contours, paying particular attention to nose-fit. A low pantoscopic tilt accounts for cheekbone width and distance. The frames are then 3D printed by Materialise in Belgium, with lenses produced by world-renowned German manufacturer Zeiss. Once funded, the brand plans to launch the REFRAMD App on face ID-enabled iOS devices, later branching out into prescription eyewear.
So far, REFRAMD has been a success with friends and colleagues. "Initially, I would invite people to my office to try them, take some pictures and get feedback. I also went to events such as the African Food Festival Berlin 2019 (AFFB19)," says Ngwenya, explaining that he met his business partner, Shariff Vreugd, there. "He said they were the most comfortable glasses he had ever worn."
"Generally, the responses were overwhelmingly good," he continues. "Often there was utter disbelief that something so obvious was not part of the mainstream already."
A vision of what's to come
Looking to the future, the company believes it is essential to be inclusive, and seeks to support individuals with unconventional face shapes, including those with Downs Syndrome. However, the brand's inspiration is, ultimately, to use creativity to make the world a more democratic place. "I look at Alejandro Araven, the architect from Chile who spoke at Design Indaba 2010 about his Quinta Monroy Project. It was the first time I became truly aware of the impact of creativity and design on society. His approach to social housing was unlike anything I had ever seen, and his design framework also made me question where I applied my design practice." While still in design school, Ngwenya gained buzz for his Roadless Project, which created a set of all-terrain, shape-shifting wheels to empower agricultural workers in rural Africa to carry burdensome items to market. Now, through REFRAMD, he seeks to create a new generation of inclusive high-end custom products at an affordable price point. With a passion for sustainability and the environment, the team also produces all their frames on demand, allowing for zero stock wasted.
What should good design do?
For now, REFRAMD plans to remain a DTC brand- and customer-centric online retailer reaching, with fans from Japan to Sub-Saharan Africa, and they've been heartened by the responses from those who have reached out to express how much they have felt acknowledged, seen, and valued. And REFRAMD welcomes this creation of a global design community that draws in rather than alienates. "Design products should reflect the rich diversity of society," he explains. "Not accepting the world as it is, that's what drives us, and we think we can effect the change we want to see."