First Year, First Patent Pending

April 9, 2019

In Duke Engineering’s first-year design course, five students designed an innovative tool that helps get artwork hung just right

students with hanger invention

“I learned that cultivating an interactive, engineering mindset based on teamwork is just as important as learning textbook materials from regular courses.” —Biomedical engineering student Sean Park, right, pictured with teammates John Gross and Will Eisner

Properly displaying art is difficult, as you know if you’ve ever spent an afternoon with a level in one hand and a hammer in the other, trying to hang a poster perfectly straight on the wall. 

For world-class art museums like the Nasher at Duke University, stakes can be higher even than botched aesthetics; the art they exhibit is irreplaceable, and every time they have to remove a piece from the wall to straighten it, there is the possibility of damaging the artwork. Brad Johnson, an exhibition designer at the Nasher, thought that using an adjustable wall hook—one that would allow the art to stay on the wall while the level is adjusted—would present less risk, and be quicker for the installer.

He thought Duke Engineering students might be able to tackle the challenge, and he brought the problem to Ann Saterbak, director of Duke Engineering’s First-Year Experience. In the school’s foundational EGR 101L: First-Year Design class, students work in teams to design solutions for real community clients.  

Five students—Randall Johnson, Will Eisner, John Gross, Sean Park, and Paul Kim—took on Johnson’s challenge. Over the course of their first college semester, they designed a durable, adjustable wall hanger capable of bearing up to 400 pounds, and they did it at a cost of less than ten dollars per unit. The team’s invention allows for the vertical adjustment of a hanging artwork by moving a block-hook complex up or down the channel of its carriage. 

With funding support from Pratt and mentorship from mechanical engineering and materials science faculty member Ken Gall, the team has moved to patent its design. The students have sent prototypes of the hanger to museums around the country, and are hoping that the feedback they receive will allow them to perfect the product. Under the terms of a rolling provisional patent, they have until December 2019 to make further improvements to the hanger’s utility and design. 

Johnson said once the hooks are perfected, the Nasher will benefit from using them with larger and heavier framed artworks. 

Eisner, a mechanical engineering student, said that he decided to study engineering to develop his critical thinking, and EGR 101L delivered. “Having this experience was a totally new way to understand what I can do with my skills,” he said. 

"We’re struggling through math and physics just like everyone else, but this experience has shown us the light at the end of the tunnel, and shows you the extent of what you can do with this education."

John Gross, ME '22

Gross, also a mechanical engineering student, agreed. “To see something you do as a freshman affect the real world is just incredible. We’re struggling through math and physics just like everyone else, but this experience has shown us the light at the end of the tunnel, and shows you the extent of what you can do with this education.” 

Learn more about first-year design