Universal Design Gets Exhibit
at National Design Museum

by Jim Davis


Jim Davis writes about design issues.

As an architecture student in the 1970s, I heard disability mentioned in class exactly once: a teacher mentioned he'd designed something for his blind uncle. In years since, I've heard only one speaker discuss design for people with disabilities in a talk on design in general: Bruce Hannah, the retired Dean of Industrial Design at Pratt institute.

Hannah and George Covington, Vice President Dan Quayle's advisor on disability policy who has only 15 percent vision, showcased examples of universal design in their 1996 book "Access By Design." Now the two have an exhibit on the same topic at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

"Unlimited By Design" runs till March 21. It features nearly 350 products designed to be functional and appealing to both people with and without disabilities.

The handles of the truly innovative Shape Memory Scissors (designed by Naoyoshi Machida and made in Japan by Ukai-Riki and the Gifu Seki Cutlery Association) are of a plastic which becomes flexible when dipped in hot water and can be molded to a user's hand. They become hard again when they cool off. A computer workstation developed by the Center for Rehabilitation Technology in Georgia is designed to roll up to an existing chair--as the user manually adjusts the chair-tilt backward and forward, the monitor and keyboard move with the chair, so that the user can work in any seated position from upright to totally supine.

The standout of the exhibit is a system of playground equipment designed by Kevin Owens and manufactured by Playworld Systems of Pennsylvania. A transfer platform at wheelchair-seat height lets a child scoot onto the lower landing of a gently sloping slide; above are segments with plenty of places to grab hold of to pull yourself up the slope. Children who find conventional swings too much motion can use one supported by two heavy curved strips of springy steel, complete with handles to grip when standing up on the swing. Cushioned paving tiles from recycled tires cover the ground. The playground has become a commercially viable product because of the many public pilot playground projects like the "Playground For All Children" in Queens, NY. and those cities that have put access requirements in playground equipment purchasing standards.

A pair of kitchens from the Rhode Island School of Design put storage in a "comfort zone" 20 to 60 inches off the floor. A built-in pasta cooker can be used with one hand, halving the number of human motions needed to cook a pasta meal. Cabinetry is motorized to adjust to any height.

The fancier of the two kitchens could cost over $2,000 per linear foot, said a cabinetmaker on my tour. The smaller, less pricey corner kitchen featured a counter-level fridge and "push latches" on cabinets (you push the door in; it automatically springs out)--which look good in exhibits but which in real life often get slightly out of adjustment, then stop working. A gallery guide who tried to demonstrate these touch-latches got the cabinets to open but could not get them to latch shut again. At this exhibit the museum's "no touching" policy was being enforced--which was extremely frustrating, given the point of this show. Hannah, when we toured the exhibit with him, kept saying, "Are the guards gone? So I can show you how this works?"

More than half of the items in the exhibit, though, can be touched, although there are no Braille labels as far as I could tell. The museum did not offer any explanation for the absence of Braille in the exhibit's labelling, but did tell me that blind and other visitors who would benefit from assistance could call in advance call to arrange for a staffer to accompany them through the museum.


For a short but interesting virtual tour of the exhibit, visit the show's well-designed website at http://www.si.edu/ndm/exhib/unlimited/home.htm


The Cooper-Hewitt/National Design Museum, at 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, in New York City. General Information telephone (212) 849-8400, TTY: (212) 849-8386. For access assistance: (212) 849-8387.


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