"Oh, you need a three-hundred-pound seat" the brisk female voice on the other end of the phone said after I had explained, as delicately as I could, and without embarrassing either of us, that ... well, let me put it this way, and without being overly euphemistic, both bodily functions could not take place at the same time within the aperture of the seat of the "beside commode" I'd been given when I left hospital. The aesthetic desecration of our Philippe Starck-designed toilet pot caused by this baldly utilitarian object, with its white tubular construction, grey plastic lid and splash guard, was of little consequence compared to the ease promised by its 21-inch-high seat - six inches higher than the one above which it hovered - a promise short-lived in the event, for the reason given above. If I understood that person correctly, this method of assessing the required dimensions of a toilet seat – by the weight of the user - was new to me and, it has got me wondering about what I know.
It is only at times like these, in my case a temporary disability, that it comes upon one that the beautiful rooms one has gone to great lengths to create come up short in one vital aspect - accessibility. I found that much of our furniture, except the bed, no longer worked for me – or rather, with me. Until this week, the fourth since surgery, there has been but one chair – one of a set of four Provençal dining chairs with arms we bought 25 years ago in France – that has been in any way hospitable to my condition. The chairs and sofa in the living room, the library and the bedroom, all by well-known designers and from reputable manufacturers were, variously, too deep, too low, too springy, or too soft - qualities which in normal times may be much appreciated. We got the decoration right, but what we forgot was to make the rooms usable in all sorts of conditions. So, for a month, I have perched like a petulant parson on a dining chair, surrounded by furniture I could not use, immensely thankful for the arms (in more ways than one) that surround and support me.
I sit now at my writing table, in another of those Provençal chairs, propped by a pillow at my back, and though this morning I heard from the surgeon that everything has gone brilliantly and I may drive and fly again, I'm still too wary of the other furniture to try and sit in it. Sit in all I shall, eventually, but the lesson has been learned - function is prime. It is the ergonomics, the universal user-friendliness informing the design of furniture that counts.
This morning I looked around at the surgeon's waiting room and thought again what a difference there is, generally speaking, between the residential side of the interior design profession and the contract side - not necessarily a difference that is universal but one that comes down fundamentally to the training either side receives. There was so much space, though none wasted, for allowing free movement of wheelchairs, walking frames, and couples side-by-side supporting each other.
At home, when we remodeled, we got our openings – the doorways – right, in that I was able to get the wheelchair and, later, the walking-frame comfortably through them – not something that could be said of many houses around this nation. But where there is a registered architect, a licensed interior designer or an experienced interior decorator involved, there should be no problem with clearances or accessibility in residences, and there will be a universality of design - the rooms will not be hostile environments to those who are in any way, and however temporarily, physically challenged.
Drawings of chairs by Emilio Terry from an article written by Marie-France Boyer for The World of Interiors, November 1987.