Michael Graves has made it his mission to put an end to the bleak abyss of contemporary hospitals. From calming wheelchair fabrics to ergonomic waiting room benches, Graves's vision for health care forsakes the architect's penchant for bombast forms in favor of sensible, subtle design solutions. That path toward conceiving quality healthcare has been more than a design metamorphosis, but a narrative informed by his own medical traumas.
A decade ago, Graves developed a virulent sinus infection while visiting Germany, and upon returning to his base in Princeton, New Jersey, he found himself losing feeling in his lower body. Suddenly, the architect known for his design agility became paralyzed from the waist down. Weeks spent in eight hospitals made him acutely aware of the deficiencies in today's healthcare facilities. This was not a case of mere unsightly décor, but sincerely dysfunctional equipment: wheelchair arms were too elevated to get close to a sink, shelves were too recessed to retrieve objects, and window shades were out of reach.
"Nobody cared," Graves lamented to Architizer in an interview. "Hospitals think of the pragmatic first. They don't even get that right, and the visual and pragmatic that should come together to form good design and experience doesn't work."
How is it that restaurants, schools, and even offices can offer top-notch design, but healthcare facilities have fallen short? "The designs are chosen by laymen," explains Graves. "For example, ideally, prototypes of a nurse's chair would be lined up, and real nurses would try them and say, 'I like this one,' and the more 'likes' per chair is what gets selected. Instead, it's people who don't know—they're well meaning, but not thinking about patients or healthcare workers' tastes."
Graves decided the moment was right for a turn toward "humanist and patient-focused design" rooted in "common sense." He struck up a relationship with Stinson to design a line of fabrics that could be implemented anywhere from waiting room chairs to emergency room privacy curtains. Forget mealy beige and murky seas of mauve and teal: in the new "Vistas" collection that Graves and Stinson recently debuted in Baltimore at the NeoCon East show, illness is cured against panache backgrounds:
The architect's secret passion for landscape painting now evinces itself in healthcare chambers, where his travels through Italy are conveyed in abstracted images of Tuscan mountainsides. Other personal narratives abound, including the inclusion of pussy willows inspired by a friend's get-well gift, and a pattern that recalls Graves' own living room rug.
"This was a real collaboration," Graves says, waxing on the joy of learning about the craft of weaving from Stinson's studio. Stinson's own John Rowan explains to Architizer, "Our designers would work with his studio to translate his artwork, while retaining all the beauty and nuances. That's not easy to do, but it was a very energizing, collaborative process." The resulting swatches of fabrics displaying natural floral and topographic imagery "are the kinds of pictures that people are familiar with, and can reduce the anxiety and nervousness of a healthcare setting," says Rowan.
With the same Gesamtkunstwerk approach of designing a building and its contents that Graves applied to projects like the Humana Building, the architect is taking on all aspects of the hospital room. Consider the Stryker patient chair, which has extended arms for assisting with standing, and comes in two seat heights. There's also an optional matching ottoman, proving that being infirmed doesn't mean you can't sit pretty:
Even more stylish is Graves's transport chair, the Prime TC. Its spring debut was a long time coming, as the traditional "X" frame wheelchair design dates to 1933. In the design process, attention was not just given to the patient's posture, but also to the ergonomics of the caregiver, with appropriately-angled pushing handles:
Architectonic aesthetics and graceful forms crown other elements of his hospital room collection for Stryker, as seen in the overbed and bedside tables:
Graves's collaborations with Stryker and Stinson aren't his only forays into curing the health design sector. He's in the process of expanding the Madonna Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, saying, "I don't know what it is you can do in Omaha, but I know what you do if you're in rehab."
To provide an equitable domicile for U.S. soldiers injured in combat, Graves designed the Wounded Warriors Home at Fort Belvoir, Virginia (top image). With the firsthand knowledge of operating a wheelchair, he included smart design fixes, such as a seamless thresholds between rooms, trough drains in the bathrooms, and lower kitchen counters.
The underlying story of Graves' health agenda is one of empowerment through empathetic architecture, for both patients and professionals. And while quality design can make the patient experience more comfortable, he attests that ultimately, it's up to oneself to choose a disposition of gratitude, concluding, "You just have to wake up everyday and say, 'I'm the luckiest person in the world.'"