The 2002 Abilities Expo in Long Beach, Calif., bustled with booths full of vendors pushing anything and everything that might possibly appeal to wheelchair users. A martial arts and drill team showed off for the crowd, as did numerous poets, artists, dancers and–of course–just about every type of wheelchair athlete. All told, close to 9,000 people crowded into the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center last June to see what they could see, show, buy or sell.
Tucked away at booth number 1128 was Inter-Transfer. At first glance this was yet another vendor, selling furniture. Besides looking hopelessly expensive for the average budget, the furniture didn’t seem much different than anything found in an upscale art gallery. A sofa made from birch and juniper evoked a forest scene. And the table crafted from Russian wood, besides being handsome and inviting, would look natural at most big-city art fairs.
Throughout the show, one power chair user after another rolled up under the table to shoot the bull with Rich Nevis, 29, a gregarious quad and architect from Mesa, Ariz. Nevis designed the furniture and created Inter-Transfer, a research group, through Arizona State University.
At one point during the show, five power chair users sat around the table talking. Eventually, it dawned on them: They were all sitting comfortably around this artsy, expensive-looking table. One of the power chair users looked down, saw no wooden blocks jacking the table up and smiled at Nevis, who smiled back and explained the table was an example of universal design. “Most people who pulled up to the table didn’t even realize they were under a universally designed table,” says Nevis.
Studying Movement Through Light
A C5-6 quad from a diving accident when he was 18, Nevis had a hard time finding a college that would accept him as an architecture student. Building and drawing models by hand are typical activities for architects-in-training, and Nevis has limited use of his hands. Finally, Arizona State University accepted him and agreed to keep a computer in each of his classrooms. He learned the same skills as his classmates, designing and building 3-D models, earning his bachelor’s in 1999 and his master’s in 2001.
While working on his master’s, Nevis became fascinated by how differently wheelchair users and walkers use the same space. Take the average room: “Everything is square,” he says. “Square walls, corners … lots of space people in wheelchairs can’t access. Corners do nothing for us. Doorways … everything has an architecture to it that does not address us.”
But thinking this wasn’t enough. Nevis saw that he had to prove his ideas about space usage. “I had a hard time getting my professors to understand. And I wanted to be understood.” He remembered reading about an architect who took a time-lapse photo of himself drawing a horse with light: The result looked like a horse drawn with a pencil made of fire. “You could actually see the outline of a horse when he was done,” says Nevis, who confesses he can’t remember the architect’s name. “He did this to see how the horse moves. He was the first to do a light study of a subject.”
To prove wheelchair users and walkers use space differently, Nevis conducted his own light study, drafting both his college roommate and fiancée to help him. He had his roommate, Nick Core, wrap white Christmas lights around him and his wheelchair, then wrap more Christmas lights around himself. His girlfriend, Cheryl Fedorchak, then took time-lapse, open-shutter photos of the two moving with the lights turned on.
“It was funny,” says Fedorchak, who also received a master’s in architecture at ASU. “We mostly did the studies in our condo complex, but we did some in other places and got stares from people, just laughing at us.”
The photos depict light outlines of movements made during normal activities–walking, sitting at a table, talking. “I felt like a giant, mobile Christmas tree and Core thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever done,” says Nevis.
Once the photos were developed, Nevis had proof of what he knew all along–a person who walks naturally uses different space than a person who uses a wheelchair. “The wheelchair is a lot lower, it’s continuous, while the human body has more movement, and a lot more energy,” he says. He showed the photos to his professors. “You can talk to them as much as you want to, but as soon as you have a visual representation. … Well, they understand me now.”
Couching the Problem
One of Nevis’ light studies shows him trying to fit under a standard table. Since Nevis himself isn’t seen in the study–only streaks of light where he moved–it’s clear he had to wiggle back and forth in order to sit at the table. Core, on the other hand, just walked to the table and sat in one spot, although he moved his arms a lot. “After studying the photos, I thought, ‘All right, now I have shown a situation where wheelchair users and walkers use space differently. What is an example of something everybody deals with every day that really might unify these elements?'”
Nevis refined his question by taking a furniture class, where he looked at the sofa as an obstacle. “Here’s a great problem–how can I take one piece of furniture and make it so everybody can use it and not exclude anybody?”
His answer was a sofa made of birch plywood with three Oregon juniper branches rising like tree trunks from strategic places around the sitting surface. A backrest is positioned between two of the trunks. “I took the light studies of movement … and I bound them into the sofa itself,” he says. “There’s a front curve so when you approach it in your wheelchair your feet can go underneath the couch. That curve is the radius of a wheelchair space, so you can get right up next to the couch. The edges are rounded so you don’t have to have a sliding board, you can slide right across it.”
“His work is the greatest thing this college has been involved with in a long time,” says Nevis’ shop teacher, Steve Biltz. “We hosted the Furniture Society last year and put the piece on display, and many of them loved the piece as a piece of furniture, without even knowing what it was for,” he says. “When we told them why it was built, they were blown away. Nevis crossed a border from sterile accessibility to something rich that everyone wanted.”
Nevis told Biltz he didn’t know how to answer members of the Society who asked how he built the couch because he didn’t do much of the actual physical work. “Architects design the building,” Biltz told Nevis. “They don’t make every door or jamb.” Biltz is known on campus as a sculptor, and students consider it a treat when he sculpts elements of their work. “One night I told Rich, ‘OK, it’s your turn.’ I started to sculpt the couch’s edge, going back and forth, and he was right behind me. When I went forward, he went with me. When I went backward, he went backward. He was like my shadow. I looked back at him and started laughing, and he’s like, ‘What, what?’ He was covered in sawdust, it was even hanging on his eyelashes, and he says, ‘This is awesome.'”
Amongst the Trees
“I wanted to sit among the trees again, and that’s why my sofa is called ‘Accessible Forest,'” says Nevis. “I’m not able to go out and sit in the woods among the trees out in the middle of nowhere, so I brought the trees into my living room.” Before his accident, Nevis hoped to study wildlife management in college, but decided it wasn’t worth it if he couldn’t walk through the woods at will. As a child, he was always outside, often building forts or tree houses with his father’s hammer, nails and scrap wood. So he says it wasn’t a hard jump from wildlife management to architecture. Nevis does take advantage of accessible trails and parks: “I do everything possible. But it’s not the same.”
Nevis calls himself “wheelchair bound” even though he knows the term is far from politically correct. “A lot of people don’t see us as bound to the wheelchair, but I use that term because, as a high quad, I am stuck to it.” He says besides his bed there are no other appliances that allow him to leave the wheelchair.
Except–now–the sofa he designed.
He rolls into the sofa’s curve and easily angles his wheelchair to allow for a smooth transfer, then slides right across the surface. Supported by the backrest, he looks up at the juniper trunks and sighs deeply. Once again, he’s under the trees in his favorite place–the forest he created for himself.
Rich Nevis can be contacted through his Web site, nevisstudio.com