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Industrial designer bruce hannah has a big problem with products and environments designed for what he calls the “Martha Stewart niche.” This market segment, populated by 35-year-old millionaires, is just too small and exclusive. What’s more, adds architect/industrial designer Tanya Van Cott, even occupants of this rarefied demographic stratum leave it by raising families and growing old. The designed world, Hannah and Van Cott argue, should be accessible to people of many different ages, levels of strength and agility, and degrees of affluence.

To celebrate the approach they advocate-dubbed “universal design” -Hannah and Van Cott have designed an engaging new exhibition for the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. In “Unlimited by Design,” Hannah and co-curator George A. Covington bring together examples of universally designed interiors, consumer goods and recreation systems, all meant to enhance everyday activities. Many items on display are commercially available today; others begin to define the household of the future.

What’s immediately striking is just how stylish and attractive most of this stuff is. Each of the exhibit’s many rooms represents an arena of daily life. The kitchen is stocked with funky, chunky (and easy-to-grasp) cooking and eating utensils, the office outfitted with sleek, curvaceous (and orthopedically correct) furniture. Indeed, says Hannah, one of the exhibit’s prime goals is to counter the stigma of accessibility-the assumption that things designed with the needs of the disabled or elderly in mind must be ugly or awkward.
Linger in front of a display and you begin to see how universal-design principles can inform familiar objects. Take a laundry detergent bottle cap: its ridges help a shaky or arthritic hand keep its grip, its bright color contrasts with that of the bottle for better visibility, it does double duty as a measuring cup, and it pours residual soap back into the bottle, cutting down on waste and mess. Lever-style door handles (a small room showcases several versions) fit more comfortably in the hand than a knob, have a shape that indicates clearly which way they should be turned, and can be operated with an elbow if hands are unavailable.

The bathroom and kitchen showcase systems were created from the start with accessibility in mind. The MetaForm Personal Hygiene System, designed by a team led by Gianfranco Zaccai at the consulting firm Design Continuum, was conceived as a tool to help the elderly and disabled live more independently. The result is a set of modules, or “nodes,” that mount between the studs of a wall. Both the sink node-complete with lighted mirror, medicine cabinet, outlets and drawers-and the toilet node-which includes a built-in bidet and folds into the wall for automatic sanitization-can adjust vertically to accommodate everyone from wheelchair users to small children to NBA centers.

The Universal Kitchen was dreamed up by a team of students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). With help from faculty, industry and project advisors (including Julia Child), the RISD group reinvented the kitchen. They ignored design conventions that require meal preparers to stoop, stretch or climb on counters. All appliances rest at a comfortable height; dishwashers, for example, double as cabinets or pop vertically out of an island countertop. Lazy-susan refrigerator shelves and pull-out cabinet shelves render food and dishes reachable. And, in a bow to the American affection for pasta, the kitchen island includes a basin of piped-in boiling water, fitted with a lightweight basket that lifts out easily-no more burning yourself trying to drain the heavy pot of spaghetti into the sink.

Though the RISD kitchens and the MetaForm bathroom are prototypes, they are technologically feasible. Looking at the gallery around him, Hannah gives voice to what is perhaps the exhibition’s most important message: “There’s nothing here that can’t be done tomorrow.”

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