Michael Graves' New Target: Medical Devices

Now in a wheel-chair, the award-winning architect is developing a line of whimsical household products for the disabled

During his 30-year-career, designer and architect Michael Graves has earned widespread international acclaim. The founder of an eponymous Princeton (N.J.) firm, Graves has received more than 160 awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1999 and the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal in 2001. Both whimsical and functional, Graves's designs are behind Walt Disney (DIS) headquarters in Burbank, Calif., the Central Library in Denver, and nearly 2,000 consumer products.

However, Graves is perhaps best known for his iconic stainless steel kettle with the red singing bird spout that he designed for the Italian firm Alessi in 1985. Since its introduction, the kettle has sold more than 1.3 million units. More recently, Graves has earned a reputation for making design, functionality, and low price available to the masses with his Target (TGT) line of household products—everything from a toilet bowl brush to a toaster.

In 2003 an untreated sinus infection left Graves paralyzed from the waist down. In a wheelchair for the past three years, the designer says he has come to understand firsthand the everyday limitations posed by living with a disability.

So it is not surprising that Graves's next project is a line of durable medical equipment to be initially manufactured by Drive Medical Design of Port Washington, N.Y. Having revolutionized household product design, Graves is hoping to make a similar impact on the sober world of medical devices.

Recently, BusinessWeek.com staff writer Stacy Perman spoke with Graves about the democratization of design and the idea of introducing design concepts to medical devices. Edited excerpts of their conversation below.

You have openly discussed some of the problems and limitations you have experienced since your illness left you in a wheelchair. Had you considered designing medical devices previously?

We considered designing housing for the elderly and the infirm but not devices. After I was injured, of course, it became apparent. I had to test everything from wheelchairs to beds, and they all needed work.

You have been quoted as saying, when you were critically ill and lying on a gurney in a Princeton hospital, awaiting transport to New York City: "I do not want to die here because it's so ugly." What impact did that have in your designing medical products?

There are all these so-called hospital design experts. When I was at Kessler [Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey], a place specifically for rehabilitation, there were problems with simple things like the placement of the mirror in the bathroom, the faucet, the way you call a nurse, that were all out of range of motion and reach.

It was crummy and ugly, and you were made to feel like if you are in a wheelchair or horizontal all of the time [you are] a second-class citizen. [I have the feeling that] these people who call themselves experts have never spent a day in a wheelchair or a hospital. They should be made to do that as punishment.

Has your personal experience influenced the process of designing differently than in your other work?

I would say in a funny way no. If I ask [my design team] to design a spatula or a can opener, they could do a good job, as long as they can use them and know what the requirements are for functionality and what characteristics might be identified for beauty.

The same is true for hospital or medical devices. I can act like the critic. If I explain what is the role of object, they get it quickly.

Of late, more attention is being paid to design in medical devices, for instance, insulin testers. To what do you attribute the rise in the consumer market of medical devices?

Something needed to be done, and I'm glad someone's looking into it. But over the whole field I am not aware that what is [happening with medical devices] is what is being done with kitchen equipment.

What is your overall goal in designing medical devices?

A lot of time [medical products] look like afterthoughts. Think about the way young parents buy strollers. There is a kind of revolution in how they open and close. I'm just amazed at how they flip around. There is sound engineering. The Italians have done a very good job in designing them to enhance functionality. I'd like to see a similar thing happen with health-care products.

When one thinks of medical devices one tends to think of sober, functional, clinical items. How is what you are coming up with different?

The way it works and looks. It is important that people not struggle when they are using something, especially if they don't have the luxury to get on their knees and make it work. We try and tell them how it works by color and shape. And we are trying not to remind you that you have an ailment or that you are sick and different from everyone else.

For example, we are thinking of [designing] canes for those with limited mobility. You can take a cane to the shopping center and it packs away in a small bag when you don't need it and it flips into vertical shape when you do. It's quite amusing and interesting and it [opens up] through gravity.

What are the product categories that you are involved in designing?

There are three: bath safety equipment, mobility equipment, and aids to daily living.

Items like bath benches, handheld showers, tub rails, and portable bath benches for traveling that fold up with handles that can assist someone in getting balance. What currently exists is unattractive plastic seats and metal tubing.

We notice that while one person in the family uses [the device], everyone has to live with it, and there is no need for it to look terrible. We are trying to make ours look not like medical devices but furniture that is meant to help you.

Your designs are often noted for their whimsy in both the use of colors and details like the bird whistle on your famous Alessi kettle. Is there the same sense in your medical devices?

I suppose there is a kind of whimsy, not because we once worked for Disney but because we use brighter, cheerier colors. There is a lighter character to them. We don't try to do that.

[For example], the colors are used as signals. We use yellow for some buttons and releases, and if the piece is white, we have a pretty warm, grey handle. We've used a medium French blue for feet on chairs and the like. We are working with elements to go with a lot of peoples' decoration in their house.

Your Target line merges function and design at a low price. Are you hoping to do the same with medical devices that as a general rule tend to be quite expensive?

We can't do anything about insurance, but we hope to be in all channels of distribution from the big box to the mom-and-pop shop, for the widest and broadest audience possible to benefit the greatest amount of people possible.

Once you take a product like this and bring it to retail with better design and let people choose based on the way it looks and operates, then prices become more competitive and less expensive. Maybe with this introduction of medical [devices] people will see the writing on the wall, and if our prices are different then we'll be more competitive.

Where would you like to take this line?

Ultimately, I'd like to design wheelchairs and scooters. I think we can do a better job than what is out there.

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