Michael Graves Design and CVS remade canes and walkers
Photo: Courtesy of CVS Pharmacy
If you’re shopping for new furniture or clothes, chances are you can buy something that expresses who you are, does its job well, and will make you want to own it. This is not the case with “durable medical equipment”, such as walkers and canes. It’s a category of goods that many people will have to buy, reluctantly, at some point in their lives, and it hasn’t changed much in decades.
“These products are usually designed for basic function, and people should appreciate that’s good enough,” says Rob Van Varick, principal designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. “Oh, can’t you stand in the shower?” Here’s a chair you can sit on, but it’s hideous, uncomfortable, and difficult to put together. We thought, Why can’t we design something Pinterest worthy?Now the company has launched a new line of mobility aids and bath safety items for CVS Health that treats the products more like household items and less like clinical equipment. The collection includes a cane folding chair, comfort-grip cane, walker, raised toilet seat, shower chair, and dresser, most of which are now available on the CVS website and will be available in more than 6,000 retail stores from from Feb. 22. The results aren’t flashy, but thanks to dozens of thoughtful details, the collection performs and looks better than anything else in its price range.
Photo: Courtesy of CVS Pharmacy
It’s ironic that tools designed to help people with daily activities like walking and bathing are riddled with flaws that make them difficult to use. MGA&D has been particularly keen to redesign bath mobility and safety products, as these are often the first assistive devices people buy. During the development process, the team spoke to dozens of caregivers, occupational therapists and people who use the items, who told them how stigmatizing these products are and how reluctant seniors are to adopt. “The phrase ‘necessary evil’ comes up a lot,” says Van Varick. “Older people…see these objects as a means to an end.” Donald Strum, a senior designer at the company, puts it more bluntly. “People may need these products, but no one wants them,” he says. “We kept hearing the aisle where these products are usually sold called ‘death aisle.’ Why would anyone want to shop in death row?!”
The new range continues Michael Graves’ commitment to designing products that are affordable and readily available. The late company founder, designer of spaces like the Walt Disney Company Headquarters, the Portland Building and the Denver Public Library, made a name for himself in the world of product design through his collaboration in 1997 with Target, which eventually grew into a 15-year partnership that influenced dozens of future department store and big-box collections by famous designers. But the assist designs also stem from Graves’ personal experience of needing mobility aids. In 2003, Graves became paralyzed from the waist down. His disability broadened the focus of his business and he began to develop medical products, hospital furniture, and assistive items. “Well-designed places and objects can actually enhance healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” he said. Over the years, his company has developed items like patient room chairs that are safe and comfortable for getting in and out of, a more welcoming and easy-to-use hospital wheelchair, heating pads and adjustable grab bars in height that you can find at Wal-Mart.
The design team knew that any product they made had to succeed in three ways: it had to work better than anything else, look better than what existed, and cost the same. For mobility items, keeping something handy was key. Collapsible canes, for example, are often so difficult to fold and open that users simply keep them assembled. They’re usually made like tent poles, with a bungee cord stretched across hollow rods that you must squeeze tightly to put together and pull apart to take down – particularly difficult moves for those with weak muscles. During this time, to keep it folded, you usually have to wrap a rubber band around it, otherwise the pieces will open again. Michael Graves’ solution? Do something that clicks. Strum got the idea from an old folding rule that Graves gave him years ago and borrowed its hinge mechanism into the CVS design. Magnets hold the unfolded cane parts together and a large push button adjusts the height. In its design of an ordinary cane, the company focused on the main problem of grip, developing a C-shaped handle that is comfortable to hold and allows users to hook the cane to a restaurant table or on their arm. The rods come with two different legs and in three colors each.
“We like to design in details that people won’t understand until they use the product,” says Van Varick. This can be seen in the company walker. Its structure is more like a cruiser-bike handlebar than a typical rollator with parallel grips – a move that gives users more clearance and stability. Working with Seton Hall’s Gait/Motion Analysis Lab, the designers found that tilting the handlebars down just 3.5 degrees (most are parallel to the ground) reduces wrist strain and helps to posture.
The challenge for bath safety products was more about maintaining dignity. “There’s a level of embarrassment when the guests are over,” Van Varick says. “They didn’t want someone to see the gear and say, ‘Oh my God, someone sick lives here.'” To address this issue, the designers paid close attention to materials and silhouettes. The chest of drawers almost looks like an ordinary chair since its thicker seat hides the removable tray. For the shower chair, the designers used chrome finishes to match the bathroom fixtures and ABS plastic, which resembles the look of an acrylic bathtub. The quality of the plastic was particularly important for the raised toilet seat. Most on the market are made from blow molded plastic which is not as nice as ABS. “It looks like a milk jug,” says Van Varick. “It looks cheap and looks cheap because it’s cheap.” The team wanted a design that looked as close to an actual toilet seat as possible and could simply snap on and off. They used a wood clamp to create a spring mechanism that allows users to attach the seat without tools.
Aside from the mechanisms, materials, and silhouettes, what’s almost more exciting about this collaboration is its scale and place of sale: in a nationwide drugstore chain. Too often these products remain as ideas in a designer’s portfolio or exist only as museum models that never make it into the hands of people who could benefit from them. This could have been the case for this collection. Prototypes of the Michael Graves canes and heavy-grip cane handles were part of Cooper Hewitt’s recent accessibility exhibit, and the company had been looking for a manufacturing partner for a decade before CVS signed on in 2019. Purchasing a smartly designed cane is now as easy as picking up a bottle of shampoo. The designers hope their collaboration with CVS will do for assistive products what their work for Target in the ’90s did for homewares – spark a dozen additional collections of accessible products, fulfilling Graves’ vision. of a better designed world. The company envisions a future in which assistive devices are just as normal, readily available and fashionable as eyeglasses. “For Michael, there was no insignificant object,” Strum says. “Everything can be endowed with a soul, a personality, which transforms the object by becoming part of someone’s life.”