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Paralyzed Michael Graves Designs From Patient Perspective

The "Patriot" house designed by Michael Graves.
Source: Michael Graves & Associates
The "Patriot" house designed by Michael Graves.

Anyone who has spent time in a wheelchair may have a lot of ideas about what's wrong with the design of the wheelchair. When architect Michael Graves realized he would likely spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he resolved to do something about it.

Stryker this week will roll out a Michael Graves' designed wheelchair, the Prime TC, that aims to increase comfort for the patient and caregiver, improve safety and cut costs for hospitals.

"It's a game changer," Graves said in an interview Thursday with CNBC while in New York to attend the launch of his home goods line for JC Penney.

This is the second phase of Graves' collaboration with Stryker, which in 2009 introduced to hospitals a line of products for the patient room designed from the patient's perspective. Once again, the patient in question is Graves.

Although Graves had previously designed a section of a hospital in Tallahassee, Fla., he hadn't experienced medical design from the other side until 2003 when an unknown infection rapidly spread to his spinal cord and left him paralyzed.

"After eight hospitals and four rehab centers, I realized the sad truth is that (hospital design) is so bad and that I'm a designer and I could do something about it," he said.

Graves, a postmodernist American architect affiliated with the New York Five, has designed the Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif.; the Portland Municipal Services Building in Oregon; and dozens others. His consumer goods have been made by Alessi, Target and most recently JC Penney, including his teapot that accidentally looks like a cartoonish silhouette of Hitler.

(Read More: Hitler's Teapot Stirs Up Strong Sales for JC Penney)

The Prime TC is only the latest of his medically focused launches.

"We want to do everything," he said. And Graves means everything. That means everything from crutches and canes to hospitals and homes.

Two of his Wounded Warrior homes have already been built for the Army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia with Clark Realty Capital. There are 19 more of the specially designed homes in the works with an aim to build more across the country for military personnel who have been injured while on duty.

Like Graves' other medically focused designs, the goal with the homes was to make it practical for someone who might be in a wheelchair or dealing with conditions such as partial blindness, loss of limbs, severe burns or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hallways are wider to allow for wheelchairs, the showers allow for roll-in access, the heating and cooling systems offer multiple zone variations and all the faucets, handles and switches are positioned for people with limited range of motion.

Graves has also designed a special house for Habitat for Humanity that accommodates wheelchairs and other adaptations. The first of those homes will be built in the fall in Los Angeles, he said.

(Read More: JC Penney Hopes for a Home Run With New Launch)

His designs are marked by their clean looks and practical, ease of use. The in-hospital items are also meant to reduce infections by encouraging easy cleaning. That's a critical element, he said, citing a study that found 99,000 people die of infections acquired at hospitals each year.

"We make things where they can't miss the handles," Graves said referring to the cleaning staff. "It's big, it's obvious, it's not modern, it's not hidden, it's not ugly, it's out there and you can't miss."

Likewise the new Prime TC wheelchair seeks to advance the main X-frame technology in use since 1933.

The foot rests and brake can be operated by the caregiver's foot, rather than requiring stooping. Since the wheelchair is not meant to leave the acute-care facility, there is no need to sacrifice comfort in designing it to fold for transport. That also reduces the likelihood it will be stolen from hospitals, said Donald Payerle, Stryker's vice president and general manager of patient handling and EMS.

"It has a lot of safety, a lot of efficiency and a lot of mobility in a really nice package," Payerle said.

The Prime TC, which Stryker calls a transport chair rather than a wheelchair, is priced higher than a regular wheelchair, Payerle said. He declined to talk price, number of pre-orders or even the company's sales expectations. Likewise, he declined to provide any current or historical numbers on the sales of the Graves-designed ensuite designs.

But despite the higher upfront price to hospitals, the Prime TC will still make a compelling argument for long-term savings based on durability and reduced theft rate, Payerle said.

The Prime TC will be made in Michigan. "It's hard, and it's expensive and it's good for the country and all of that," Graves said of the "Made in the USA" element.

(Read More: Welcome Home: 'Made in USA' on the Rise)

In addition to the projects with Stryker, Graves said he is in talks on a number of different products with other companies, and is in the process of designing a new rehab hospital in Omaha, Neb., for Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

Among the features will be patient rooms with fold out beds for parents to sleepover if their child is a patent. Graves is planning to design not just the hospital, but also the fold out bed.

"We have to do it all," he said.

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter, @AmyLangfield.

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