Just because a device is designed for people with disabilities doesn't mean it can't be stylish.
Famed designer Michael Graves, known for his whimsical teakettles and other household items, is lending his signature blue highlights and sleek shapes to bathroom safety and other accessibility products for the disabled and elderly in a line for Drive Medical, a privately held manufacturer of wheelchairs, canes, walkers and other medical equipment.
Graves, 75, uses a wheelchair after meningitis in 2003 left him paralyzed below the waist. The award-winning architect says he became "an instant expert" on the difficulties facing the disabled.
But Graves said his disability was not the reason Drive Medical approached him about designing a new logo, which led to the company asking Graves to design a line of new products in 2004.
"I'm not even sure they knew I was in a wheelchair at the time," Graves recalled.
The line began small in 2006, with a Graves-designed heating pad, and recently expanded to include bath benches and bathtub rails.
Two of those Drive Medical devices are on display at a Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibit celebrating Graves' 40-plus years as a designer, architect and artist.
“Every day is learning for me because I'm in a wheelchair. For me, it's kind of payback.”Designer Michael Graves
The exhibition, which opened in late August, is housed in the three-story, $50 million Graves-designed Target Wing addition that opened at the MIA in 2006. Called "From Towers to Teakettles: Michael Graves Architecture and Design," the exhibit runs through Jan. 3, 2010.
One of the Drive Medical devices on display is an adjustable bathtub rail that clamps to the edge of the tub.
In contrast to the stainless steel grab rails usually seen in institutional settings, Graves' offering is a soft blue oval ring set onto a metal frame clad in white plastic with a bright orange knob for adjustments.
A sleek silver Graves-designed collapsible cane that folds into a black bag also is on display.
Drive Medical spokesman Edward Link said the Port Washington, N.Y.-based company was looking for an acclaimed designer who could remove the "medicinal look" of health-care products.
Graves has designed about a dozen products for Drive Medical in three areas: bathroom safety, including the bath rail and bath and shower seats, which are now available online and in medical specialty stores; mobility, such as the cane; and aids for daily living, such as reachers.
The Graves-designed canes and reachers will be rolled out over the next three to six months.
Graves said his Princeton, N.J.-based design group, which has designed more than 1,800 consumer products, thinks "about the whole community" when it starts any product design.
"We don't treat them differently in terms of the human being that's going to hold it, assemble it," Graves said. "Whether you're a young homeowner or you're in a nursing home ...you can open the jar with our jar opener."
Designs for the disabled need to take into account that not everyone with a disability is the same, Graves said. In his own case, Graves said, he suffered spinal pain after his paralysis, and the first wheelchair and minivan he used did not have the right shock absorbers to cushion against bumps.
"Every day is learning for me because I'm in a wheelchair," Graves said, adding that designing for the disabled is rewarding. "I think for me, it's kind of payback."
Graves said he likes his designers to spend time in a wheelchair while working on a product, such as a reacher, so they know what it's like.
"That understanding of being in the wheelchair and strapping you in and not being able to get out of it is a very, very good experience," Graves said.
Like Drive Medical, making designer products available to everyone is a goal - and a business strategy - for Target Corp., which is celebrating its 10th anniversary with Graves and is supporting the MIA exhibit.
Graves became Target's first designing partner in 1999 after designing the scaffolding for the Washington Monument renovation for which the Minneapolis-based retailer was a major contributor.
Target's Graves collection has had more than 1,200 products over 10 years and now has around 130 products, including toasters, ironing boards and cookie canisters.
(Target is not carrying the Graves-designed Drive Medical products, and the blue in his Drive Medical designs is a different shade than his Target designs.)
Sue Redepenning, a Minnesota occupational therapist who examined Graves' Drive Medical products online, said they look cool. And Redepenning said that's as important to some people with disabilities as at is to some people without.
"They don't want their products to be these eyesores," Redepenning said. "Nobody, from kids to adults, wants somebody to say, 'Wow, that's really bizarre-looking.'"