For the many who believe knowledge that comes from experience is far superior to any amount of ‘book’ learning, news that Michael Graves has turned his hand to designing healthcare products is welcome. After all, who would know better than Graves, who recently turned 79, what a disabled patient needs in a hospital room? Having spent two years shuttling around eight hospitals and four rehab centers, the world-famous designer, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2003, draws on first-hand experience.

‘Empathetic’ Architecture

In February 2003, the New York Times reports, Graves developed a sinus infection before a routine business trip to see clients in Germany. To manage the infection, he brought his medication with him, two bottles with identical directions for use. Thinking they might be the same — that the second bottle, which contained an antibiotic, might simply be a refill of the first bottle containing a decongestant — he took only one. Unfortunately, it was not the antibiotic he chose.

After returning to Princeton, N.J., where he lives alone, Graves developed a severe back pain. Responding immediately, two partners in his architectural firm rushed him to the emergency room. From there, numbness began creeping up his legs and by morning paralysis had spread. Graves was moved to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he was given antibiotics that caused the creeping paralysis to end, but not reverse. To this day, he remains paralyzed from the waist down.

Necessity demands that he use a wheelchair. This has not provided Graves with an excuse for limitation; on the contrary, he has turned this painful reality into a focal point for his work. His practice has become a center for healthcare design, and he has been personally involved in drafting plans for hospitals, medical offices, assisted living facilities, as well as homes for people with disabilities. Recently, he extended his design ideas to hospital chairs and tables and a product line for seniors and others with physical limitations. Although the design world has not advanced as rapidly in this area as it might — "the avant garde is so narcissistic” — Graves believes that “the United States is ahead of other nations in developing new people-centric health care facilities and products,” he told US News & World Report.


Graves, whose playful building designs reflect his post-modern — and hugely popular — sensibility, is currently working on the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska, while also developing homes for disabled veterans in Virginia, an assisted living facility in Indianapolis, and a sports medicine clinic in Colorado. In 2009, Graves partnered with Stryker Corporation, a medical technology company, which offers reconstructive medical and surgical neurotechnology, as well as spine products that are intended to help people lead more active lives. In late 2010, the partnership brought forth a suite of patient room furniture based on ‘ethnographic’ research. In June of this year, Stryker launched the Prime TC wheelchair, which Graves designed for durability and comfort as well as the most important quality, user-friendliness. It is understood that his authentic experience provides him a unique understanding of what all that may entail.

Doctors now believe that Graves may have developed either myelitis or bacterial meningitis. Myelitis, which often targets insulating material covering nerve cell fibers known as myelin, is a neurological disorder. The cause is unknown, though the inflammation that damages the spinal cord may result from viral infections or abnormal immune reactions. No effective cure currently exists for myelitis. Bacterial meningitis is caused by several pathogens including group B Streptococcus. About 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, including 500 deaths, occurred each year between 2003 and 2007 in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Bacterial meningitis is usually treated with antibiotics, and if they are administered immediately and effectively, most people make a full recovery.

At his sickest moment in one hospital, Graves said, “I can’t die here, it’s too ugly.” Clearly, the designer has overcome his own personal health crisis and, with his rich experience, is now helping others avoid that dark fate.