PRINCETON, N.J. – In a profession noted for longevity, it's not surprising that Michael Graves, the noted architect and designer of housewares for Target and J.C. Penney, is still going strong at 79 years old. I.M. Pei is still with us at 96, Frank Gehry is 84, Frank Lloyd Wright lived to 91 and, going way back, Christopher Wren was 90 when he died in 1723.
But during the past 10 years, Graves has been confined to a wheelchair, following a nightmarish sinus infection that spread to his brain and within 24 hours left him paralyzed from the waist down. For the better part of two years, Graves checked into hospitals and rehabilitation centers as a business traveler checks into hotels. "I was in eight hospitals and four rehab centers," he recalled in an interview here at the offices of two converted homes that house his two practices – Michael Graves & Associates and Michael Graves Design Group.
While receiving his medical care, Graves was struck by the poor designs of hospitals, health care facilities and the chairs, tables and other devices used by patients. "If it's going to be this bad for everybody else in health care," he said, "I should do something about it."
And he has. The architect has designed hospitals, assisted living facilities, doctors' offices and homes for people with disabilities. He also created a line of hospital chairs and tables as well as a consumer line of products for seniors and others with physical disabilities.
Graves says he thinks the United States is ahead of other nations in developing new people-centric health care facilities and products, but it's still a long road, and one that is often seen "up close and personal" when traveling in a wheelchair.
Design Group principal Linda Kinsey explains how the company has switched gears and has strived to make the practice a "center for health care design."
"We leveraged every contact we had" in getting into the business, she adds. Her team visited 20 hospitals, benchmarked the competition, read academic literature, interviewed stakeholders and tried to identify the real problems behind the lack of progress in health care architecture and product design. What has emerged, she says, is far more than stylish products that look like Eddie Bauer editions of hospital chairs and tables.
"Ten years isn't very long in architecture to get things started," Graves says, adding that early efforts hit a lot of bumps. However, he's now partnered with Stryker Corporation, a medical device maker based in Kalamazoo, Mich., to produce a line of hospital chairs and tables, and an expanding line of consumer products is taking shape. Graves' work on a variety of health care structures is also starting to move from the drafting table to the construction site.
He's currently working on the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha, Neb., and there are plans to develop homes for disabled veterans in Virginia, an assisted living facility in Indianapolis, a sports medicine clinic in Colorado and other buildings.
Graves says his dream is to find funding for a series of three sites throughout the country – in the East, Midwest and West – that would house and continually update ideal health care patient rooms. The rooms would be standard enough that anyone can build them, he explains, and they would represent the best thinking about health care facilities.
Graves also wants to continue implementing the firm's multi-pronged health care strategy and help create a solid business legacy for his colleagues.
Earlier this year, Graves was named by President Barack Obama as a board member of the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that promotes equal access to facilities for disabled people. He says he's fully aware that his disability affects how others relate to him, and he seems bemused by the reception he often receives at public events. (He jokes about giving speeches in hotels and getting to the venue through the kitchen, as kitchens often are wheelchair-accessible since they must accommodate food and equipment. "Where the garbage goes, I go," he quips.)
"When I lecture, I get a standing ovation just for the introduction," he says. He listed four reasons for the positive response: his age, the fact that he's still doing architecture and design, the consistent message he delivers that his craft needs to become more humane and sensitive to people's needs and also his paralysis.
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He espouses "an empathetic architecture" and says the profession practiced it in the 1970s and 1980s but has moved far away from this today. "Right now, we're in the downest cycle we can be in," he says. "The avant garde is so narcissistic." Graves plans to become more active in public efforts to change professional attitudes but says it's not an enjoyable prospect. "It's the least of what I want to do, and it's the most of what needs to be done."
Corrected on 09/03/13: A previous version of this story misstated Linda Kinsey’s description of Michael Graves’ line of hospital products.