Wounded Warrior: Michael Graves - Design Bureau

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Architect Michael Graves

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A rare glimpse inside the studio of Michael Graves reveals a very low key setting, but one with many projects in the works 

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The bird-spouted tea pots are just one of Graves’ many product designs

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Graves’ mass-marketed products demonstrate that high design does not have to be “so serious – or so seriously expensive”

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A look at the exterior of a Wounded Warrior Home

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The entire floor plan is wheelchair friendly

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Adjustable counter heights and windows that extend to 18″ above the floor are some of the custom features within each design

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One of the residents, a chef, can feel the ease of cooking again in the accessible kitchen 

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A look inside a master bedroom, which includes a technology closet to store wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs

Wounded Warrior: Michael Graves

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

The architect opens up about his life-changing paralysis and how it inspired him to revive design for  handicapped individuals

 By Kimberlie Birks

Michael Graves and mobility are at a permanent standoff. A decade ago, the world famous architect and designer woke up to find himself paralyzed from the chest down. “You are reminded of your disability every day,” he says of his life. “People say ‘don’t worry,’ but they don’t understand that it makes you feel like shit.” Don’t think for one second, however, that Graves spends time on self-pity. His life motto? “The next.” And while life in a wheelchair has shifted his design perspective, it hasn’t slowed him down. Graves is on a mission to improve handicap design at the everyday scale, and he is only moving in one direction: forward.

It was February 21, 2003 when architect and design powerhouse Michael Graves did something almost unprecedented: He left work early.

“That was only the second time in 17 years that I’d heard him say he didn’t feel well enough to work,” recalls Karen Nichols, a principal at his Princeton, New Jersey design firm, Michael Graves & Associates. Graves has been one of the most prolific designers of his generation. Known for his bold, colorful, and often cartoon-like architecture, Graves defined American post-modernism and was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor in 2001. But it was his work for Target that truly hit the bull’s-eye. His bird-spouted teapots and egg-shaped timers brought high design to the mass market, and the objects proved that design didn’t have to be “so serious—or so seriously expensive.”

While Graves’ aesthetic is playful, his work ethic is decidedly otherwise. His is the kind of career that required nights, week- ends, and lost vacation days. So on that February day when he decided to leave early, it was clear that the persistent sinus infection he was battling was not your average cold.

That night, Graves left his dog in the care of a neighbor and checked into the hospital. His symptoms—a low-grade fever and nerve pain in his back that he likened to having a tooth drilled without novocaine—left doctors baffled, and no amount of painkillers seemed to ease his discomfort. When the architect became unable to feel his legs around 3 A.M., his doctors assumed it was the effect of the morphine; but by morning they realized the paralysis—which had now spread from the chest down—wasn’t due to the medication. It was permanent.

Now, a decade later, Graves’ doctors still don’t know exactly what went wrong. “It’s very rare,” Graves says. “I have been told that there are four people in the United States that have something like this.”

In the months following that fated February night, there was much that propelled Graves through his recovery, including his resolve not to die in the hospital because it was “so ugly.” Having progressed through eight hospitals and four rehabilitation centers, the architect was all too familiar with the design failings of our health care system. On his first day in a wheelchair, Graves was given the challenge to dress and shave himself. “That was extraordinary for me,” he says. “I couldn’t turn on the water, I couldn’t plug in the razor, I couldn’t look in the mirror. And this is a hospital very well known for therapy. At that point I said to myself, ‘I am going to do something about this. I am a designer, I’m an architect; I’ve got the bully pulpit.’”

When he returned back to work, Graves used his paralysis to drive his design ideas forward. Partnering with medical technology company Stryker, the architect decided to begin where he could have an immediate impact: hospital furniture. “We really challenged the whole notion of functionality,” Graves says. His first collection for Stryker included a patient chair, bedside stand, cabinet, and overbed table. “We always correct people who say, ‘You’re trying to make this look better.’ Well, yes, we want it to look better, but that’s easy. The look and the function are one and the same. They are not separate. It looks good because it functions beautifully. That message is very hard.” But the designer’s sights didn’t stop at the hospital room; for countless people like him who leave carrying a permanent handicap, Graves knows design must work harder to pave their way beyond the hospital door.

“Let me dump on ADA now,” he says, in reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “ADA is a basic set of handicap requirements. Very basic,” he says. “I don’t mean to put them down, but this is the way I see what ADA does: They put grab bars in a few hotel bathrooms and say, ‘There. Done.’” As Graves exemplifies, many disabilities require design standards that are much more stringent. From where he sits, the ADA does not provide them. Graves, who had to significantly modify his beloved home in Princeton to accommodate his needs after he became wheelchair bound, knows just how challenging this can be. “You don’t want a house to say ‘old people live here’ or ‘sick people live here.’ You want the house to be very normal looking. How do you do that?”

Fortunately, Graves found a partner to explore that very question at Clark Realty Capital, the real estate developer that oversees the military homes at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Noticing an increasing number of wounded soldiers returning from war with a desire to remain on active duty, the developers quickly realized that the standard housing model was no longer working. In an almost unprecedented move, they resolved to create a new model of military home geared toward making wounded soldiers ready, willing, and able. In 2010, Clark Realty project director Casey Nolan approached Graves to design a prototype that would make the homes of wounded soldiers and their families more dignified, joyful, and healthy. “We weren't sure if he’d even respond,” Nolan says in a filmed interview about the project. “I mean, this is just one or two houses on a military base, and he’s known for building institutional buildings around the world.” But Graves took on the challenge, and the Wounded Warrior Home Project was born. “Michael showed up to every design meeting, and was doing the sketches himself,” Nolan says.

Alongside world-renowned design firm IDEO, Graves began by spending several months seeking the input of scientists, architects, psychologists, consultants, builders, and engineers to provide a framework for the homes that far exceeded typical code and accessibility requirements. “When you’re in a wheelchair, it is a game of inches,” Nolan says, noting Graves’ commitment to even the tiniest details. Graves agrees with this perspective wholeheartedly, adding that successful handicap-accessible design doesn’t need to be difficult. “If I am in a hospital and I can’t reach the sink faucet, I get pissed off,” he says. “It is tiresome to be carping about things that are so easy. You put the faucet on the side. Period.”

With their bright colors, picket fences, and light-filled interiors, both Wounded Warrior home models are beautiful in appearance, but it’s the functional design details that really establish them as a new model for handicap-accessible living. They are, in effect, Graves’ pithy response to the ADA. “The vets are so far beyond that in terms of their needs,” he says of ADA’s myopic metrics. His homes, however, work hard to be flexible where their occupants are not. “In a wheelchair, the first thing you think about is ‘How am I going to get around?,’” says Danielle Shell, a Wounded Warrior spouse interviewed for the Wounded Warrior video. “This alleviates all of that worry.”

 Without an ungainly ramp in sight, Graves’ efforts to set a new standard begin seamlessly at the front door, where an entry card reader aids those without the manual dexterity to turn a traditional key. Inside, the entire floor plan in both homes is wheelchair friendly, designed with ample space for maneuverability, accessible bathrooms, adjustable counter heights, sliding doors, and windows that extend to 18 inches above the floor. Twelve different temperature control zones further give the wounded warriors the ability to cater to their more specific temperature needs without affecting the comfort levels of their family members. There’s even a technology closet in each master bedroom where wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs can be charged and stored. Graves smiles proudly as he describes one of the project’s newest residents: “The woman had her arm amputated and is also a chef,” he says. “Her first comment when she saw the kitchen was, ‘Finally, I will get to cook again.’”

While the Graves models are but the first two of 19 additional accessible homes planned for Fort Belvoir, the Wounded Warrior Homes Project hopes to ignite a bigger conversation about how developers and builders can leverage thoughtful, human-centered design to better serve us all. Graves thinks that with time, such considerations will happen naturally. “With the baby boomers coming of age, things will change,” he says. “We will have a lot of people the same age looking for the same thing; good looking objects and a walker that doesn’t have tennis balls on [its feet].”

 At 78, an indefatigable Graves is happy to lead this conversation. “It all stems from the same sense of the humanistic code,” he says. The man who began his career by bringing design for the few to the many may find his biggest legacy lies in bringing design for the many to the few. “I want all of those things that are used for an ambulatory society, but one that takes care of people like me with equal vigor,” he says. “I am doing that now the best I can, but I don’t know if I will get enough done to show a new standard. I hope I am able to.”

One thing is certain: Graves isn’t going to let his paralysis hold him back. “I don’t see myself like that,” he says, pointing to the disabled sign on his car. “I dream walking.”

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