Photo: Courtesy of CVS Pharmacy
When you’re shopping for new furniture or clothes, chances are you can buy something that expresses who you are, that works well, and that will excite you. This is not the case with “durable medical equipment” such as walking aids and canes. It’s a category of goods that many people are reluctantly forced to purchase at some point in their lives, and it hasn’t changed much in decades.
“These products are usually made for a basic function and people are expected to appreciate that,” says Rob Van Varick, a lead designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. “Oh, you can’t stand in the shower? Here’s a chair you can sit in, but it’s hideous and uncomfortable and difficult to assemble. We thought, Why can’t we design something Pinterest-worthy?“Now the company has launched a new line of mobility aids and swim safety items for CVS Health that treats the products more like household goods and less like clinical devices. The collection includes a folding cane, comfort grip cane, walker, raised toilet seat, shower chair and dresser, most of which are available now on the CVS website and will be available in over 6,000 retail locations starting February 22nd. The results aren’t flashy, but with dozens of well-considered details, the collection works and looks better than anything else in its price range.
Photo: Courtesy of CVS Pharmacy
It is paradoxical that the tools designed to help people with daily activities like walking and bathing are riddled with bugs that make them difficult to use. MGA&D has been particularly keen to reinvent mobility and swim safety products as they are often the first gadgets 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 them. “The phrase ‘necessary evil’ came up a lot,” says Van Varick. “Older adults…see these items as a means to an end.” Donald Strum, one of the company’s lead designers, puts it more directly. “People may need these products, but nobody wants them,” he says. “We kept hearing that the aisle where these products are usually sold is called the ‘Aisle of Death’. Why would anyone want to shop in the aisle of death?!”
The new line is a continuation of Michael Graves’ commitment to product design that is affordable and readily available. The late company founder, the designer of spaces such as The Walt Disney Company’s headquarters, the Portland Building and the Denver Public Library, made his name in the product design world through his collaboration with Target in 1997, which eventually turned into a 15-year Years of partnership that influenced dozens of future department store and mass retail collections by famous designers. But the supporting 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 company and he began developing medical products, hospital furniture and supplies. “Well-designed locations and objects can actually enhance healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” he claimed. Over the years, his company has developed items such as patient room chairs that are safe and comfortable to get in and out of, a more welcoming and easier-to-use hospital wheelchair, and heating pads and height-adjustable grab bars that you can find at Walmart.
The design team knew that every product they made had to be successful in three ways: it had to perform better than anything else, look nicer than anything else on the market, and cost just as much. With mobility items, having something within reach was key. Folding canes, for example, are often so difficult to fold and open that users simply leave them assembled. They’re usually made like tent poles, with bungee cords stretched through hollow poles that you have to squeeze tightly to assemble and pull apart to disassemble — particularly difficult movements for those with weakened muscles. In the meantime, to keep it folded, you usually have to wrap a rubber band around it or the pieces will spring back open. Michael Graves’ solution? Do something that snaps. Strum got the idea from an old collapsible folding rule Graves had given him years ago and borrowed its hinge mechanism in the design for CVS. Magnets hold the unfolded tubular sections together, and there’s a large push button for adjusting the height. In its design for a regular cane, the company focused on the main problem of the handle and developed a C-shaped handle that is comfortable to hold and allows the user to hang the cane on a restaurant table or on their arm. The walking sticks are available with two different feet and each in three colors.
“We love designing details that people don’t understand until they use the product,” says Van Varick. This can be seen in the company’s rollator. Its structure resembles a bicycle cruiser handlebar rather than a typical parallel-handled walker—a movement that offers the user greater freedom and stability. Working with the Gait/Motion Analysis Laboratory at Seton Hall, the designers found that tilting the handles down just 3.5 degrees (most are parallel to the floor) reduces wrist stress and improves posture.
The challenge for the bathing safety products was more to maintain dignity. “It’s a bit awkward when guests are over,” says Van Varick. “They didn’t want someone to see gear and say, ‘Oh my God, someone here is sick.'” To counteract this, the designers paid close attention to materials and silhouettes. The dresser almost looks like a regular chair as its thicker seat hides the removable pan. For the shower chair, the designers used chrome finishes that match bathroom fixtures and ABS plastic that resembles the look of an acrylic tub. The quality of the plastic was particularly important for the raised toilet seat. Most on the market are made out of blow molded plastic which isn’t as pretty as ABS. “It feels like a milk jug,” says Van Varick. “It looks cheap and feels cheap because it’s cheap.” The team wanted a design that was as close as possible to a real toilet seat and easy to put on and take off. They turned to a woodworking clamp to create a spring-loaded mechanism that allows users to attach the seat without tools.
Mechanisms, materials and silhouettes aside, almost what’s exciting about this collaboration is the scale and location where it’s sold: at a nationwide drugstore chain. All 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 might benefit from them. That may have been the case with this collection. The prototypes for Michael Graves’ walking sticks and cane handles were part of Cooper Hewitt’s recent accessibility exhibition, and the company had been looking for a manufacturing partner for a decade before CVS signed on in 2019. Buying a smartly designed walking stick is now as easy as picking up a bottle of shampoo. The designers hope their collaboration with CVS will do for utility products what their work for Target did for homewares in the ’90s—ignite a dozen more collections of accessible products and fulfill Graves’ vision of a better designed world. The company envisions a future where assistive devices are just as common, readily available, and fashionable as eyeglasses. “For Michael, there was no insignificant object,” says Strum. “Anything can get a soul, a personality that makes the object a part of someone’s life.”