Ok sure – beauty is subjective and good design is in the eye of the beholder. However, I am confident to say, without a whole lot of justification, that there is a lot of ugly accessible design in the world. Ugly, depressing, thoughtless and sad design that merely or barely follows building guidelines. When I tell people that I specialize in accessibility, I often get a less than enthusiastic response. Many people think immediately of grab bars, plastic elevated toilet seats and rubber-footed walkers. I am on a mission to change this.
Accessibility was always a requirement for the commercial and institutional projects that I worked on. It was just something that we did in the office. We would integrate the required access ramps, chair lifts and grab bars, relying completely on the recommended guidelines set out by our codes and manuals.
When I started working on a house for my cousin, a vibrant young filmmaker, I started researching everything I could. Google searches and research reveal plenty of horrific and depressing design. Why is everything beige? Why does it need to look orthopaedic? Why do the more design-sensitive options have to cost so much more?
Accessible and universal design is becoming popular in residential work. Our building codes are starting to require increased opportunities for aging in place. Baby boomers see the need to adjust their homes for life.
I learned that Michael Graves, known for his Postmodernist Portland Building, spent the end of his career focusing on accessible design. Not only did he design spaces and developments for access, he also designed healthcare products, walking sticks, wheelchairs. “Most of what exists for such people is just too depressing to even die in,” he told the Washington Post. “I believe in well-designed places and objects that can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.” Why didn’t I know about this? Was it because he was considered a sell-out by the time his vision hit the racks of Target? Graves brought his design to consumers. And he was trying to do the same with the healthcare design.
I have been collecting links of accessible work that I like. On Pinterest, Houzz, and in my blog posts. I’m finding inspiration in non-conventional ways. European products are more progressive. I am looking for cost efficient options that bring access to residential applications, without the horror. Happy, comfortable and inspiring homes that inspire health, recovery, and joy.
I urge other designers to seek inspiration from unconventional sources. Stray away from Pinterest and design guidelines. Go to the library. Look at nature. Think about daylight and colour. Accessible design has got to improve, and it is our responsibility to help make a change.