Accessibility Watch: Gorgeous Canes

You may recall seeing Omhu canes on other blogs, or as a nominee for the People’s Design Award at this year’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Triennial. With their glossy, colorful painted shafts and blonde wood handles they’re a refreshing take on a product that’s seen little innovation in generations, and certainly has never been this good looking.

Omhu (Danish for “with great care”) is a new company founded by three experienced executives in the world of luxury, fashion, and design: Susy Korb, a former executive at Tiffany, Christie’s and Harry Winston; Rie Nørregaard of Smart Design, Arnell Group and frog; and Susan Towers of Kiehl’s 1851, Time Inc., and Assouline. These women are also caretakers, wanting to improve the products their aging or disabled friends and relatives use, while injecting a bit of pleasure into the experience.

The category of goods Omhu has set about redesigning is known as “aids for daily living” and in addition to canes, includes walkers, bath chairs, and bed pans, not generally known for being joyous, colorful or attractive. Frankly, purchasing and using such items has been, by and large, a depressing experience. Omhu sets out to change all that by asking its designers to focus on details that make each object visually and tactilely appealing and more functional than previous iterations. The cane, their first product, is designed by Allen Zadeh with Rie Nørregaard, who take a new approach to design for disability. The company is also working with designers Stephen Burks, Henrik Vibskov, Tucker Viemeister, and Ted Muehling on future products.

I know, having observed my mother with her canes and other mobility aids that more than a few aspects of these objects need rethinking. Typically, these items are bleak, like the ones you find on allegromedical.com and activeforever.com. Omhu has set out to turn this status quo upside down. Instead of the standard, dreary, monotonous brands dominated by silver metal, grey rubber and white plastic with such improbable names as “allegro” and “active,” conceived as cheap, disposable, temporary measures, we’re getting beautiful products that recognize a permanent condition. They speak the language of enabling, movement, and joy.

Recently I sat down with Omhu’s founder, Rie Nørregaard, to discuss their new product line. She spoke about her own experiences caring for older family members, and showed me several of her inspirations, including a delicate, antique wooden cane that belonged to her grandmother. She noted that “most everybody knows somebody” who relies on such objects, and that the current experience, form shopping to use, needs to be upgraded.

“You know that ‘clunk?’” Nørregaard asked, referring to the sound of disability, as a cane hits the ground, a product of the industry’s blanket solution to one size fits all – telescoping tubing. In contrast, Omhu canes come in three sizes (small, medium, large), or can be cut to custom lengths depending on the owner’s stature. And perhaps the most dignified and brilliant feature of all, there’s no clunking. The cane’s rubber foot produces a lovely, silent bounce.

omhufootThe Omhu Cane’s replaceable foot is made from flexible high performance synthetic rubber, often found in athletic shoes.

These durable objects are made for activity and high performance. The shaft, inspired by bicycles, is made of high-strength, lightweight aluminum tubing painted in bright colors. The handle is inspired by a hockey stick, made of laminated Baltic Birch plywood, and finished much like a skateboard deck; the two strips of “grippy” rubber are inlaid to help with holding the handle, and keep it from slipping and falling when leaned against a wall (a common shortcoming of most canes). The patented foot is also inspired by sporting goods, employing the high performance latex-free synthetic rubber found in athletic shoes to create a flexible tip that provides traction and support on any surface, and is replaceable once it begins to wear.

In addition to employing a whole new set of inspirations, colors, and materials, Omhu has taken the environment into consideration as well. Industrial designer Erika Hanson, who consulted on the green production methods used to manufacture the canes, explained the great lengths to which they went to ensure high quality and environmentally friendly production. For example, the natural wood handle which is in constant contact with the owner’s hand, is finished in organic linseed oil applied by hand to avoid the waste of overspray. Recyclable aluminum with a zero-waste powder coating is used for the shaft, and all rubber scrap from the manufacturing process is reused.

What’s in store for the future? “We are planning user testing and ongoing research programs with the Carter Burden Center in New York and The Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. Both will be working with the canes and future products,” says Nørregaard. Omhu canes will launch this November, and will be followed by a range of products, the most provocative of which is expected to be a bed pan. Nørregaard knows that people are generally uncomfortable talking about this personal object, “and some people think we’re out of our minds.” Like their canes, the bed pan is an elegant and sensitive response to the unappealing options currently on the market. The design is inspired by the combination of “a military grade stainless steel bed pan and a Georg Jensen bowl.” It may even spark a public dialogue about design for aging and disability, long avoided in the US. Find the canes at specialty retailers including Assouline, the shop at the Cooper Hewitt, Bigelow Pharmacy, and on omhu.com.

In her previous post in this series, Emily Leibin wrote about accessibility through furniture design.

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