Living by Design: Michael Graves Looks at Improving Home Health Products

Lips and Roosters kettle by Michael Graves

For internationally renowned architect and designer Michael Graves, bad design is painful. Seriously. Three years ago, Graves lay on a gurney in an ambulance bay in Princeton, N.J., waiting to be transferred to a hospital in Manhattan. He’d been in excruciating pain all night and could no longer feel his legs. Still, he tells people, his only thought was, “I don’t want to die here, because it’s so ugly.”

Graves didn’t die, but the sinus infection he’d been fighting on a recent business trip had made its way into his spinal cord, leaving the then-68-year-old paralyzed from the waist down. Graves found himself in a grim new world where he was often at the mercy of poorly designed medical products. After learning of Graves’ paralysis, a medical equipment manufacturing executive approached the designer with a challenge: “Do for us what you did for Target.”

Graves’ partnership with Target Stores is widely credited with making good design accessible to the masses—he turned out new designs for everything from toilet brushes to teakettles. The home health-care industry was looking for the same kind of design revolution. Graves took on the challenge with both professional and, this time, deeply personal enthusiasm. The initial product line, which includes such items as a shower massager, illuminated bed rail, bath bench and folding cane, will be introduced by Drive Medical Design on Sept. 19 at the Medtrade home health-care trade show in Atlanta.

For the product designs, Graves started with lots of research: “It’s as if you were designing a car for the first time,” he says. Most important, he and his associates talked to the people who use assistive devices, asking them what works and what doesn’t. The team redesigned products to improve functionality and added that Michael Graves style—rounded edges, soft handles, a touch of color and, often, of whimsy.

In the early days of his paralysis, Graves remembers, he got a simple showering aid at the gift shop at his rehab facility, so he could reach down to scrub his feet. “Look at this,” Graves said at the time, holding it up in disgust for David Peschel, his director of product design. The device was ugly and didn’t work very well. “Let’s make a better sponge on a stick!”

Three years and endless sketches later, Graves’ redesigned hand-held shower massager is a reality. It has an extendable handle, an easy on-off button, an oversize shower head and a brush attachment. Plans are to add a loofa and, of course, a sponge. It’s a great example of universal design: it appeals to everyone while also accommodating specific needs. The massager will “make it easier for wheelchair-bound people to shower on their own,” Graves says, but it’s an appealing product for anyone wanting ease of use and a touch of luxury in the shower—”whether washing yourself, your child or even your Labrador retriever.” Let the revolution begin!

© AARP Bulletin

Keywords: seniors, design, age-friendly