Talking With Michael Graves

Paralyzed in 2003, the renowned architect and designer talks about his favorite medical devices, having a wheelchair flat at LAX, and designing his own line of medical equipment.

As an architect and designer, Michael Graves is famous for combining purpose with wit and beauty, from the Swan and Dolphin hotels in Walt Disney World to the Humana Building in Louisville to his martini shakers for Target. But in 2003, when he became paralyzed from the mid-chest down -- most likely from a sinus infection that spread to his spinal cord -- at the age of 68, he was thrust into a world of bad design.

He often tells the story of lying on a hospital gurney after a night of excruciating pain, thinking only, "I don't want to die here because it's so ugly." But for Graves, ugliness wasn't just a matter of how medical equipment looked; it didn't work as well as it should, either. It seemed to him that the "expert" designers of medical equipment and hospitals didn't have a clue what it was like to use them.

So Graves, also a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, did something most people using wheelchairs and walkers can't. For Drive Medical Design, he used his new insight to bring improved functionality and style to bath-safety and mobility equipment and other everyday devices familiar to caregivers and their parents. Most of his new line, known as Michael Graves Active Living Collection, will go into production this summer.

Because baths can be scary places for those with limited mobility, Graves designed a bath seat with telescoping, elliptical legs, rather than circular ones, so they can't twist when being adjusted and drift out of alignment. He also broadened the seat and back for more stability. After observing that many people who use canes prefer them out of sight when not in use, his design team came up with a collapsible cane that folds into a purse-sized bag. Other designs include illuminated bed rails and an easy-to-adjust showerhead, so people with arthritis or dexterity problems don't have to grip a handle. Already on the market, his heating pad draws moisture from the air to transmit heat more efficiently to body areas sore from arthritis and other conditions.

Graves and his designers try to make their products cheerier and lighter by using colors that can work with home decor, such as warm gray and French blue. That's because one of their main goals is to make devices that don't constantly remind their users -- and those around them -- that they are, as he puts it, "sick and different from everyone else."

Q: When did you first question the competence of medical design?

A: Early on, my first day out of bed at Kessler Hospital, I went into the bathroom in my wheelchair to shave. I looked in the mirror and the bottom of it was at the height of my forehead. I couldn't see my face, so there was no shaving with a straight razor. So an electric razor was brought to me, and I tried to plug it in, and it was out of reach for me. And I thought, well, at least I can wash my face, but I couldn't reach the faucet. So the next day when my surgeon came by, I asked him to get in a wheelchair and come to my room. I strapped him into the chair, and he couldn't reach anything. I asked, "Who designed this?" And he said, "Experts." I said, "Am I the first one to tell you this?" He didn't answer me.

Q: What do you do differently than the "experts" in designing medical equipment?

A: I make the people here in my design practice sit in wheelchairs and use walkers and go to their cars with the wheelchair and see if they can fold it up sitting in the driver's seat and store it in the back. There is just nothing like doing it -- you can't imagine it.

Q: Why is this such a neglected area of design?

A: I think it's because there hasn't been any competition. The makers just want to get it out on the market, even if it's only half right. But you can't act that way. I remember one of the design magazines had a competition for product of the year, and the only one in this area was a wheelchair. They gave it first place because there was nothing else. And it was just awful. The judges didn't know and the designer didn't know.

For me, beauty and design are inseparable. You can't have something that works well and is ugly. If it works well, it is probably beautiful. A paperclip is beautiful to me because it works well. It's a matter of someone taking the time to understand, say, how your hand works and how the implement that you put in your hand is working relative to the task at hand.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We're making improvements that people don't necessarily see initially on products. For example, on a combined walker-rollator we're designing, we're making the cables internal because when we've observed people putting them in their car trunks, the brake lines get caught on things. So we do little things like that all over the devices we make.

Q: What are your favorite medical devices that you use?

A: One of the pieces of equipment that is invaluable for me, given my lack of ability, is an air bed. A pump keeps the air in the mattress moving all the time and that keeps me from having bedsores. That's something you don't really know about at first. You hear about bedsores and you think that was an 18th-century problem. But it's something you have to take very seriously. That's what killed Christopher Reeve. His bedsore got infected even with the help that he had, and he had a lot.

I bought a stair-climbing wheelchair so I could do my jobs in Europe and the Far East, because they are not prepared for people like me in those places. My insurance won't pay for it because it's not literally a wheelchair; it's a "convenience device" or some other name that they call it so they won't have to pay for it.

Q: From the way you describe it, it seems that many people with paralysis are made more disabled by their lack of access to the right equipment.

A: Someone asked me at a dinner the other night, "Where can I buy a wheelchair for the shower?" Her husband had broken his hip and couldn't come to dinner that night because he couldn't get in the shower, couldn't stand up, and so on. And it was very hard to tell her where to go because we don't have a place to buy one in Princeton. And then people also have to worry about whether their insurance will pay for it and so on.

When my mother lost her leg, I remember going from Indianapolis to St. Louis on the train for her to get fit. I say this because the way these objects are marketed and sold is an issue. We should mandate the ability to buy them, as we have mandated handicapped parking zones, but we don't. For example, the bigger drugstores could be required to have a wheelchair for sale, even a manual one.

Q: How did you learn to accept your paralysis?

A: First of all, I didn't accept it at the beginning. I hoped that I would walk in six months or so and that this was just a momentary thing. But it wasn't. Then my doctor told me that I would walk in four years. They really thought, before the slowdown with stem cell research, that that would be possible. At the end of five years, I asked him, "Will I walk?" and he said, "No." That has to do with the man in the White House and the fact that the difference between religion and science isn't understood there. That is important because it dribbles down and affects all of us in terms of timing and how much time one has left and that sort of thing. But I've resigned myself to not walking; I don't even think about it anymore.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier?

A: That's one of my favorite topics. I thought paralysis was all the same, but it's different for everyone, so it's very hard to plan for a device or even a therapy that will help everyone. It took me a while to realize that even if someone was paralyzed one vertebra lower than I was, they could do a whole lot more than me. Or one vertebra higher, and they could do even less.

That leads me to the initial pain of paralysis. The pain is also different for everybody. Even today, as I'm talking to you, I have pain. But you just live with it. I think the pain has lessened a little bit over the past five years since I was paralyzed, but that too might be different for others. For some people, it might get worse. I used to think, "Why doesn't it go away? Hasn't the good body met the bad body yet? It's time they got along" -- because that's where it hurts the most, where the two conjoin.

Q: How do the differences in paralysis and pain make it difficult to buy equipment?

A: When I was being fit for a wheelchair, I didn't know that there are enormous differences in wheelchairs. I'm an Italophile, and as one might expect, I liked one that had looks and an Italian name -- a Prego. I thought, oh this Prego is going to be good. It was a piece of crap.

I didn't realize that even going over a saddle -- the rise between one room and the next, where two materials come together or carpet comes together with wood -- was very painful for me in the first years. Bumps, whether speed bumps or holes in the street, were excruciating in that chair because it really didn't have the suspension that I needed. I didn't even want to go out because the pain was so bad. Then I realized that it really wasn't made for somebody like me, and the therapist who was supposedly in my camp in the hospital didn't ask me the right questions. So you really have to take it on yourself, because they may ask the guy before you and the guy after you, but they may not ask you what you think you need.

Q: Do you have a better wheelchair now?

A: I have one with tires that have air in them, but I still keep the Prego for when I'm in a pinch. I remember once when I was in Los Angeles, I had a flat tire coming off the plane, and the airline said it would send the engineer to fix it. When he got there, he said, "I'm used to fixing flats on 747s." And I said, "Well, this'll be easy for you then. It's a small tire." And he said, "I guess you're right." You have to be more cautious with wheelchairs than you'd probably expect.

Q: What else did you learn?

A: The wheelchair led me to think that if the street hurt me that much, maybe my car was part of the problem too. I got a special design from Chevrolet and it was one of the worst things I could ever have done. I finally called a friend in California who designs cars and told him that I wanted a 1946 Buick that rides like a drunken elephant. I told him why -- that I wanted suspension and then some -- and he recommended a Toyota. I got one after driving every other van, and the Toyota was the best. It's terrific.

Q: What's the most positive thing that has come from this experience?

A: I just focus on today. And my caregiver has become my best friend. She's terrific. The difference between her and the ones I had that just did their job is palpable. She saved my life.


over 3 years, said...

brilliant !

over 4 years, said...

Your friend who wanted a wheelchair he could use in the shower could Google "pool wheelchairs" for a range of waterproof chairs. Another piece of equipment I found wonderful was a Guldmann ceiling track hoist. And the only wheelchair which is really custom made was by a British firm "rgk", although you need a really good occupational therapist to do the measurements and assess your body morphology and needs.

about 6 years, said...

Ms. Peri: I would appreciate being able to get a message to Mr. Graves to ask if he could help me with a difficult situation I have. I have had multiple ministrokes since having chemotherapy for breast cancer 30 years ago. I have axonal sensorimotor polyneuropathy in my legs and gait ataxia as a result of that chemo. I now have autoimmune hepatitis from contaminated blood I received 30 years ago during a mastectomy. The autoimmune hepatitis has caused me to have Stage IV cirrhosis of the liver (nonalcoholic) and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in my lungs. I have been on chemotherapy and high doses of steroids for almost four years, and have definitely weakened under that. I am still determined to keep going to watch my grandsons play baseball, basketball, and football, and go to music events where other grandsons are quite fine musicians in bands. I use a walker to stabilize myself and currently use an Invacare Rollite Rollator (had it before I knew about your gizmo). I also have to use oxygen at 5-6 lpm when walking. I have Respironics EverGo by Phillips which weighs 10 pounds. I have been putting it on my walker seat when I go out which I cannot do very often because of the struggle to breathe and manage all of the equipment. When I become exhausted trying to walk and breathe, I need to sit down on the seat, so I have to put the EverGo on the floor. It comes equipped with a luggage cart, but I haven't figured out how to pull a cart and stabilize myself with my walker to keep from falling. It's like walking, talking, chewing gum, and trying to run a foot race at the same time. I need some setup for me whereby I could use your hybrid rollator and have a place for the Evergo somewhere out of the way, yet easily accessible when I need to plug it in to recharge it while I am at all-day doctors' visits in Pittsburgh which is 75 miles away from where I live. Would it be possible for a modification to be made so that I can take care of myself by getting in and out of my Ford Windstar van without too much difficulty breathing? I am hoping you can tell me what to do and how to do it. I am 70 years old and not ready to completely give up and just sit in my chair. I still have things to do. Thank you very much for any help you have time to give. You have done so much with your talents for people who cannot do for themselves, and your efforts are much appreciated. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I drive with hand controls on my van because of the jerking in my legs and feet. Also, I live alone having lost my husband to a glioblastoma brain tumor 14 years ago. Thank you, Ms. Peri, for helping to communicate my message to Mr. Graves.

over 6 years, said...

Thank you so much for this article/interview. I did not know Mr Graves had become wheelchair bound. As a healthcare provider, I can guarantee you that many designs need changing. I also have an aging parent who goes to dialysis 3 times a week. There are many issues related with this. My mother has devised one item to make the dialysis process to be a little easier. Would love to find a way to market/produce it. I also have a nephew who had to have half of his brain removed when he was an infant. He is now a young adult. He has issues as a result of his initial surgery. It would be great to see shows like Project Runway have a challenge that involved health related issues. There are other shows it would be wonderful to show the issues that the disabled or aging population have to adapt. The Home Makeover show does that occasionally. Thank you for this wonderful article. Continued success to Mr Graves and continue with your innovative powers. People like you are our future.

over 6 years, said...

Thank you for bringing your expertise to the world of the disabled. I hope you will be represented at the Abilities Expo in Los Angeles and other cities. My son is profoundly developmentally disabled since he contracted viral encephalitis at age 6 weeks. He is now 32 yo. We have yet to find a wheelchair that he cannot destroy. We always believed he should be a product tester.

over 6 years, said...

Though obviously written at least four years ago, this article's ideas are still quite valid. There's still a dearth of well-designed products and too little good competition. However, Mr. Graves misses the mark with his comments about stem cell research. All the actual treatments and cures have come from adult and cord-blood stem cells. No one -- churches, ethicists, politicians, etc. -- has a problem with these non-embryonic methods. Yet sadly, Mr. Graves, Mr. Reeves, and many others keep up the clamor for embryonic stem cell research, which has produced nothing and has cost billions. You don't have to be religious to object to curing adult human beings by killing embryonic human beings.

over 8 years, said...

Really interesting article - there's so little style in aids for daily living. Great to get someone like Michael's perspective on it! Kudos to him for is imperfect and beautiful!

over 10 years, said...

I think you could take this article and adapt it to your loved one's mobility needs or pain issues. Try putting yourself in their shoes (sometime, literally). Before buying anything, try it on for size yourself. Try to make sure the equipment is going to 'fit' their needs. Sit in the wheelchair. See if the rail next to the toilet is at the right height for them. Measure their height and see if the bed is too high - that may be why they'd rather sleep in the recliner -- so it would be safer to get up at night to get to the bathroom, for instance. Be a REALLY GOOD CONSUMER. Go to the internet and read about it. Then, ask every question you can think of. And don't be afraid to call back again if you have more questions. About DESIGN - this is going to be a huge growth industry in the coming years. As these Baby Boomers age, they are going to expect more and better products to handle their needs with health, immobility, pain, etc. Nice article.