Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

January 2011

Assume They Want Your Help

Michael Graves on Universal Design


Architecture, Articles, Michael Graves

It’s early afternoon when my taxi pulls up in front of a boxy clapboard building in Princeton, N.J. Michael Graves, FAIA, keeps a number of studios on this tree-lined street. I worry that I haven’t made it to the right one, especially when I’m welcomed by three wooden steps leading to a small porch. As far as I can tell, there’s no accessible ramp or lift, and I can’t ascertain how Graves—who’s used a wheelchair since 2003, when a spinal infection left him paralyzed from the chest down—gets to work.

Only later, once I am seated in a room filled by a huge Graves-designed conference table, do I learn how the architect reaches the front door: via a ramp concealed by a row of carefully pruned hedges. Graves isn’t hiding his disability; it’s the ramp that’s hiding in plain sight. The design is a straightforward example of integrated accessibility. For Graves, accessibility is a daily experience composed of dozens of challenges unimaginable for able-bodied designers.

Case in point: While I am seated at the conference table—a glass-topped affair with a sculptural white base that draws whimsically on the architect’s love of classical forms—Graves is parked sideways at the narrow end. Designed before his disability, the table is too low for his knees and motorized wheelchair to slip under.

Graves is soft-spoken. He tells long stories that are at once personal and political—one is infused with just-barely-concealed rage against the former Bush administration’s policy on stem cell research (which might yield treatments to help his condition). Graves was in and out of eight hospitals during the year and a half after his illness, and a narrative about that time soon spins into an architectural moral.

“My first day in my wheelchair, I thought, ‘Oh, good, today finally I can shave,’ ” he begins. “So, I took myself into the bathroom—I was very proud of myself, by the way—and I reached for the hot water [tap], and I couldn’t reach it. And so I thought, ‘Well, that’s not such a big deal. I can ask somebody to bring me my electric razor.’ And then I looked around where I would plug in the electric razor, and the outlet was on the wall next to the floor.”

Unable to see his face in the mirror and increasingly frustrated, he asked his doctor to sit in a wheelchair and go through the same tasks, with similarly obstructed results.

For several years, Graves has consulted on hospital facilities and durable medical goods—the kind of products used both at home and institutionally. Healthcare has become as important a part of his work (with both Michael Graves Design Group, his product and graphic design firm, and Michael Graves & Associates, his architecture firm) as hotel complexes and housewares for Target. In 2009, Graves partnered with medical equipment manufacturer Stryker to create a collection of hospital-room furniture geared to address the needs of both patient and caregiver. The designs draw on his own experiences, as well as behavioral research and interviews with medical administrators, doctors, nurses, and disabled and elderly users.

Graves is frustrated by the lack of good, affordable, mass-produced healthcare products, especially as baby boomers reach the precipice of old age. “I used to say that we are in ‘the new normal.’ And it got to be a phrase. There are now—I’ve forgotten how many millions of boomers there are. But if you sprained your ankle today and you needed to get a pair of crutches, where would you go?”

I have no idea, I tell him. “They aren’t immediately available all around town,” he agrees. “I say that because there’s not much competition. And the people who buy those things are generally elderly, on fixed income, and they’re not going to spend the most.”

Graves directs me to sit on a terra-cotta-red armchair with a rounded back and bulbous arms that recall the Mickey Mouse–ears teakettle he produced for Disney. We’re in his product design studio, surrounded by young employees and prototypes for stereos, bathtub safety bars, and kitchen utensils. He tells me to pretend that I am elderly and to try to lift myself out of the chair.

“One of the things we understood was that people have to get to the front edge of the chair before they can get up,” Graves explains. “And when they get there, then it’s the big push. My grandmother wouldn’t have made it. She would do that two or three times before she was able to get up.”

I grip the shepherd’s-crook-like arms, tilt forward (“Nose over toes,” Graves instructs), and easily lift myself into a vertical position. The rounded arms that seemed originally like a flight of design fancy actually provide me 2 extra inches of leverage.

Once standing, I walk and Graves rolls to his workspace in the office. Tubes of paint are scattered on his desk, and several canvases are in the works. Rome is Graves’ favorite place, but he has not been there since his paralysis. It’s an impossible terrain for wheelchairs, even high-tech ones. In ochre, brick-red, and olive-green paint, you can see his longing to return.

Each painting is an abstracted vision of the Italian landscape; a few of them were commissioned by a local hospital. But another small canvas catches my eye. It depicts a light-filled hospital room. The red Stryker chair, two tables, and a bed are rendered in the same Mediterranean hues as the landscapes—Graves’ dream of a more humane healthcare environment.

“Even though I was one of the originators of Postmodernism, I don’t think in terms of style at all. I never have,” he says. “I was simply trying to humanize Modernism. I was simply trying to find a way to make an architecture that didn’t leave me cold.”