If you’re shopping for new furniture or clothing, chances are you’ll be able to buy something that expresses who you are, does its job well, and will make you feel excited to own. That isn’t the case for “durable medical equipment,” such as walkers and canes. It’s a category of goods that many people will need to buy, begrudgingly, at some point in their life, and it hasn’t changed much in decades.
“These products are usually made for a base function, and people are expected to appreciate that’s good enough,” says Rob Van Varick, a principal designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. “Oh, you can’t stand in the shower? Here’s a chair you can sit on, but it’s hideous and uncomfortable and hard to assemble. We thought, Why can’t we design something Pinterest-worthy?” Now the firm has launched a new line of mobility aids and bath-safety items for CVS Health that treats the products more like home goods and less like clinical equipment. The collection includes a folding cane, a comfort-grip cane, a walker, a raised toilet seat, a shower chair, and a commode, most of which are now available on the CVS website and will be found in over 6,000 retail stores as of February 22. The results aren’t flashy, but through dozens of well-thought-out details, the collection works and looks better than everything else in its price range.
It’s paradoxical that the tools designed to assist people with daily activities like walking and bathing are riddled with flaws that make them hard to use. MGA&D has been especially eager to redesign mobility and bath-safety products since they’re often the first assistive devices people buy. During the development process, the team talked 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 them. “The phrase ‘necessary evil’ came up a lot,” Van Varick says. “Older adults … see these items as a means to an end.” Donald Strum, a principal designer at the firm, puts it more bluntly. “People may need these products, but nobody wants them,” he says. “We kept hearing the aisle where these products are usually sold referred to as ‘the aisle of death.’ Why would anyone want to shop in the aisle of death?!”
The new line is a continuation of Michael Graves’s commitment to product design that is affordable and readily available. The firm’s late founder, the designer of spaces like the Walt Disney Company headquarters, the Portland Building, and the Denver Public Library, made a name for himself in the product-design world through his 1997 collaboration with Target, which eventually became a 15-year partnership that influenced dozens of future department-store and mass-retail collections by celebrity designers. But the assistive designs also come from Graves’s personal experience of needing mobility aids. In 2003, Graves became paralyzed from the waist down. His disability widened his firm’s focus, and he began to develop medical products, hospital furniture, and assistive items. “Well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” he asserted. Over the years, his firm has developed items like patient-room chairs that are safe and comfortable to get into and out of, a more welcoming and easy-to-operate hospital wheelchair, and heating pads and height-adjustable grab bars you can find at Walmart.
The design team knew that any product it made had to succeed in three ways: It had to work better than anything else, look nicer than what was out there, and cost the same. For the mobility items, keeping something in close reach was critical. Folding canes, for example, are often so challenging to collapse and open that users just keep them assembled. They’re usually made like tent poles, with bungee cord strung through hollow rods that you have to press together tightly to assemble and pull apart to disassemble — particularly difficult motions for those with weakened muscles. Meanwhile, to keep it folded, you usually have to wrap a rubber band around it or the parts will spring open again. Michael Graves’s solution? Make something that snaps into place. Strum got the idea from an old folding yardstick Graves had given him years ago and borrowed its hinge mechanism in the design for CVS. Magnets hold the unfolded cane parts together, and there’s a large push button to adjust the height. In its design for a regular cane, the firm focused on the main problem of the grip, developing a C-shaped handle that’s comfortable to hold and lets users hang the cane off a restaurant table or their arm. The canes come with two different feet and in three colors each.
“We love designing in the details people won’t understand until they use the product,” Van Varick says. This is apparent in the firm’s walker. Its structure looks more like bicycle-cruiser handlebars than a typical walker with parallel grips — a move that gives users more clearance and stability. Working with the Gait/Motion Analysis Laboratory at Seton Hall, the designers found that tilting the grips downward by just 3.5 degrees (most are parallel to the ground) reduces wrist strain and helps with posture.
The challenge for the bath-safety products was more about maintaining dignity. “There’s a level of embarrassment when guests are over,” Van Varick says. “They didn’t want someone to see equipment and say, ‘Oh my gosh, someone sick lives here.’” To address this, the designers paid close attention to materials and silhouettes. The commode looks almost like a regular chair since its thicker seat hides the removable pan. For the shower chair, the designers used chrome finishes to match bathroom fixtures and ABS plastic, which is similar to the look of an acrylic tub. The quality of the plastic was especially important for the raised toilet seat. Most on the market are made from blow-molded plastic, which isn’t as nice as ABS. “It feels like a milk jug,” Van Varick says. “It looks cheap and feels cheap because it is cheap.” The team wanted a design that would look as close to an actual toilet seat as possible and could snap on and off simply. They riffed on a woodworking clamp to make a spring-loaded mechanism that lets users attach the seat without tools.
Mechanisms, materials, and silhouettes aside, what’s almost more exciting about this collaboration is its scale and where it’s sold: 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 get into the hands of people who could benefit from them. That could have been the case for this collection. The prototypes for the Michael Graves walking sticks and heavy-grip cane handles were part of Cooper Hewitt’s recent exhibition on accessibility, and the firm had been searching for a manufacturing partner for a decade before CVS signed on in 2019. Buying a smartly designed cane is now as easy as picking up a bottle of shampoo. The designers hope their collaboration with CVS does for assistive products what their work for Target in the ’90s did for home goods — spark a dozen more collections of accessible products, fulfilling Graves’s vision for a better-designed world. The firm envisions a future in which assistive devices are just as normal, readily available, and fashionable as eyeglasses. “To Michael, there was no such thing as an insignificant object,” Strum says. “Everything can be given a soul, a personality, that transforms the object into becoming part of someone’s life.”