If I were to ask you right now when you plan to buy a new iPhone, television, or living room sofa, you’d probably have a solid ballpark estimate for each of them, ranging from a few months to maybe a decade. But if I were to ask you when you plan to buy your first walker, how would you answer? Your response would probably be less about a specific time frame than a specific need. You’ll buy it when you need it. And that’s a time that no one, frankly, wants to think too much about.
This is the core challenge that CVS is taking on with what is easily one of the most important product releases of the year. While it has sold its own brands of bandages and medicines for years, today CVS is launching an ambitious line of durable medical equipment. These are assistive devices for seniors and people with limited mobility: canes, a walker, a shower chair, a raised toilet seat, and a commode. They’re designed to be affordable, functionally superior to other products, and blend in with your home rather than turning it into a hospital. And they start at $40.
“There hasn’t been much change in [this space] for decades. The products looks exactly the same, the packaging looks almost the same,” says Brenda Lord, VP of private brands and quality assurance at CVS Health. “I don’t think we can indicate that we’re proud of any great progress.”
For the task, CVS partnered with Michael Graves’s storied design studio. Graves was a trained architect who grew into a legendary product designer before he died in 2015. His teapot—first made for Alessi, and then Target—was a watershed release for the retailer that you may still remember. In reality, it was just one of more than 2,000 thoughtfully designed home products created by his studio, and sold exclusively at Target, that democratized design in the late ’90s and differentiated the retailer from Walmart.
Graves fell ill around 2003, right as his collaboration with Target had crested. After being hospitalized for an unknown infection, he was left paralyzed for the rest of his life. Accessibility projects like canes became slow-burn projects in the studio. And despite having a few interested clients to release these products over the years, “for one reason or another, they never made it to the finish line,” says Rob Van Varick, principal and 19-year veteran at Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D). “And let’s face it. People don’t think this is a sexy category, because it’s not.”
Those fortunes changed four years ago, when Lord arrived at CVS and the company considered its products for the aging population. Teamed together, CVS and MGA&D conducted deep research, from polling to going into customer homes, to understand where durable medical equipment products were falling short. Was there a business opportunity? Certainly. But as a VP at a healthcare company, Lord also felt a personal responsibility to push this space forward and supply better options for the public.
“So right now, we were hearing from our customers that they were trying really hard to not buy these products. That can lead to waiting too long before buying the products,” Lord says. “We’d like to get customers into products that feel better [earlier] . . . and we hope we can improve their lives by preventing those falls in the first place.”
That meant CVS had to to address the elephant in the room about accessible products: that they often make people self-conscious. “I wish we didn’t have to use the word stigma—that’s what we’re working hard to move away from—but there was quite a bit of shame, concern, and anxiety,” Lord says. “While we can’t erase a lot of the challenges for this population, this was not the mindset we wanted our customer to be in.”
That stigma, however, isn’t just about someone needing a device to get by. As Van Varick points out, humans are tool users by nature. And we have all sorts of tools we use each day: glasses, shoes, computers. “Nobody makes fun of people for using a spatula because they can’t reach into a burning-hot pan,” Van Varick says. No, this particular product category is so stigmatizing largely because it’s built cheaply and without much thought to its design. Hospital utilitarianism becomes the design language for objects that live in our homes. They signify sickness rather than creating an environment to enjoy life and stay strong.
“The reality is, you look at these [objects] . . . they’re made from blow-molded plastic, which gives it that milk jug feel,” Van Varick says of the products we’re all accustomed to seeing. “It’s the stuff kids’ outdoor play sets are made out of. It’s low cost to manufacture, but then it looks like you have a milk jug on your toilet.”
A chair? A commode? It’s both
By contrast, the new line at CVS has considered fit and finish right alongside improved functionality. Nowhere is this more clear than with its new 3-in-1 Comfort Commode ($189.99), which was built with the high bar to be “Pinterest-worthy.”
Most commodes are essentially a metal walker retrofitted with a bench and a bucket. Because they’re made to use when you can’t make it to the bathroom, they naturally live in someone’s bedroom or living room. So this new commode is built like a chair—complete with foldable armrests and a back. There’s even a lid that closes the commode on top so that it can function as a seat for company or if the user just needs a place to sit. As for the dreaded bucket, that’s tucked away behind an oversize front lip of the chair. And even though the legs are height adjustable, you’ll notice that there are no exposed holes for those adjustments, like you’ll see on a walker. That’s because those holes have been moved to the back of the legs—a simple detail that hides them from sight.
The commode intentionally looks similar to a related product, the Convertible Shower Chair and Stool ($110). “This is such a big problem in this industry. Everything is a one-off design for that [single] functionality,” Van Varick says. “We designed a collection. The shower chair builds off all the design cues of the commode.”
Instead of having holes in its seat, as most shower chairs do to let the water fall through, MGA&D built the chair with a slight slope so that the water runs off naturally. A hook sits on the front to hold a showerhead, and another sits on the back to hold a washcloth—a detail the design team added after observing that most people needed their shower bench to double as a little table.
As for the finishes, those are a white and satin nickel to match the finishes in the average bathroom. But it’s not just any white. It’s not a cold and clinical hospital white. It’s a soft, domestic white. “Benjamin Moore does not sell a medicinal white paint color,” Van Varick says.
Along the same lines, the new Raised Toilet Seat ($70) avoids a clinical white, too, instead matching the white of a porcelain toilet. The plastic selected for the process was ABS—the same hard, glossy plastic used in many bathtubs and bathroom fixtures.
But where the seat really distinguishes itself is in its enhanced functionality. CVS had fielded complaints about such stick-on seats for years, because their twist-on pressure clamps often come undone. MGA&D borrowed slide-on clamps preferred by the modern woodworking industry. As soon as you slide the seat onto the toilet, it clamps down automatically and cannot be pulled back off. (Pressing the nickel buttons on the seat’s side releases the clamps when you need to remove it—a nontrivial point, as Van Varick explains how many people travel with their toilet seats since hotels don’t stock such boosters.)
The new Easy Fold Travel Walker ($120) exemplifies, perhaps more than any other product in the collection, how little care has been given to the design of durable medical equipment. Your average walker is a metal cage. It’s often retrofitted with tennis balls to help it slide because either the feet wore out or it wasn’t constructed properly in the first place.
MGA&D developed a new style of foot for the walker. When you’re pushing it forward, this foot slides easily. But when someone places weight onto the walker, a rubber grip pops out like a click pen, stabilizing the structure. Crucially, these feet are replaceable when they wear out.
The front has a single column rather than two, inspired by a bike’s front fork. “Part of that is about breaking away from the stereotype of a cage with four legs,” Van Varick says. “The other part is, how do you eliminate some of this material to be lighter than [the average] walker?” As a bonus, grabbing the walker by this front column balances the weight perfectly in someone’s hand, making the object easier to move.
Rethinking the humble cane
The final two products of the collection are a pair of canes—and they were both projects that Graves worked on before he died, which his firm has been trying to bring to market since.
“Canes are that gateway product. They are the first device people will need from a mobility perspective,” Van Varick says. “We believe if we can start to change perception around [canes] it will help them transition to products they need rather than resist, resist, resist, resist.”
The Comfort Grip Cane ($40) uses a design that has been shared before but never released as a product. The most notable feature is the C-shaped handle on top. That C rests directly over the stick section of the cane, which improves proprioception as you walk.
Initially, the C-shape began as a visual exercise, a means of rethinking the wooden cane’s form. The reason canes have a curved handle to begin with is due to the way they used to be produced, by bending a steamed piece of wood—and that production method followed canes into metal designs. But the new C curve has real benefits in use, aside from looking so striking.
On top, it’s flatter than you’d think to offer a comfortable grip, making it easier to hold than a typical curved cane. The bottom of the C makes a perfect place to rest an arm or hang a purse or coat when seated. You can even hook the C onto a table to hang the cane for easy access. An almost imperceptible “bucktooth” protrudes from the C to make this tiny bit of balancing magic possible.
Meanwhile, the Take Along Folding Cane ($40) is just an all-around better folding cane than what’s on the market today. Folding canes work just like tent poles, with interlocking pieces that are held together with a central cord. And if you’ve ever cursed your way through packing up a tent, you might understand how this seemingly clever design is also unwieldy.
“It’s not manageable!” Van Varick exclaims. “So people don’t fold them up!”
To be honest, this new folding cane seems to work like any other folding cane—on paper. But through years of iteration on the design, MGA&D developed a square pole design that you can pull apart in one, single motion. The individual sections don’t get tangled up. Then, to pop the cane back out, all you have to do is flick your wrist, and its spring-loaded hinges unfurl with a satisfying clack. I was surprised by how sturdy it felt a moment later, bearing the weight of my 6-foot frame without flinching.
If this line of products arrived at any retailer, it would be notable. For it to arrive at CVS, however, is impactful. That’s because no matter your background or socioeconomic status, you probably end up at a pharmacy from time to time, and there’s a good chance that pharmacy is CVS. Some 75% of Americans live within 3 miles of a CVS, and 85% live within 10 miles. While the company plans to sell much of this collection online due to the large space the items would take up on store shelves, the fact of that matter is that the collection is not just democratizing design like a cute teakettle did back in the ’90s; it’s democratizing our health and well-being.
“We look back at that conversation Michael Graves had with Target; that changed the game,” Van Varick says. “But we think this [collaboration] with CVS has the chance to be even more impactful . . . to turn [accessible devices] into a true consumer product category.”