This is the first article in a new series on our blog, “Meet Our Clients”, where current and former MGA&D clients share their insights, views on design and experience working with the firm. Our inaugural interview is with Bob Thacker and Karen Cherewatuk. Bob first worked with us while he was with Target and the firm is currently designing a new home just outside of Minneapolis, MN for the couple.
Tell us a little about your professional background.
BT: I’m a lifelong marketer. Karen is a college professor. I spent more than 45 years in marketing. I began on the creative side and moved into marketing management. I was a Senior VP of Marketing at Target, Sears, and OfficeMax. Karen is an English professor whose been on the faculty at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, MN for 30 years. We both share a love of architecture and design.
Define “design excellence” in your words.
BT: Design excellence is something that works beautifully. It goes beyond form following function. Design excellence functions perfectly and it inspires, and even delights.
What are the hallmarks of good design?
BT: Simplicity. Ingenuity. Functionality. Accessibility. Surprise.
How did you hear about MGA&D?
BT: I first met Michael Graves when I was at Target in the late 1990’s when Target hired the firm to design the scaffolding system for the restoration of the Washington Monument which Target sponsored. This was an historic assignment. The firm’s work was stellar. One day, while we were working together, Michael shared all of the product designs that his firm had created but hadn’t produced. They were remarkable. I saw that the book was full of beautifully simple and functional designs that I knew Target could produce and sell. From that ground-breaking scaffold for our national monument to the iconic Michael Graves teapot and toilet brush, I have followed Graves’ design and benefitted from it in my daily life—as have millions of people who have never even heard of MGA&D.
Michael made great design available to the masses. I’d seen it in a toaster, a pancake flipper, and a toilet brush. Now I see how his spirit lives on in the creation of our home. -Bob Thacker
Why did you select MGA&D for your design project?
BT: I was aware of Michael’s deep commitment to improving design for people with disabilities, and Karen and I were about to get married. Whose house would we live in: yours, mine, or ours? Karen had lost her daughter Helen who was in a wheelchair and later her first husband Rich, to cancer. But because Karen and Rich had made their home accessible for Helen, Rich was able to die peacefully at home. Karen let me know that she would never build a home that wasn’t accessible to anybody, in any condition—from the baby in a stroller to an adult in a wheelchair.
MGA&D’s work on the Wounded Warrior Project was an inspiration for me. I asked Michael, “You’ve created something beautiful and practical for people who are disabled. What about aging Boomers who will become in some way or another disabled or families who don’t want to have to renovate a home when faced with a medical emergency? What can you design for them?” He smiled and said, “I don’t have a client.” I replied, “Yes you do. Us.”
What is your vision for your new home?
BT: We envision creating a place that is simply beautiful: a home that will make our lives easier and more productive, a home in which every guest will feel welcome. The Graves’ team has designed our house to help enlighten others—particularly those in the building industry—to the needs not only of an aging population, but of the public at large.
To make a comparison: The American with Disabilities Act mandated “curb cuts” on sidewalks for people in wheelchairs. Yet the public has benefited from this required change: Parents pushing strollers, bicyclists, delivery people, and travelers wheeling suitcases. We would love to see the government mandate changes to make private homes accessible, as it has public buildings, but we know that notion is too ambitious. So we want to create a lovely, middle-class home that is affordable and accessible to all, so that other families come to demand universal design and builders come to see it not as a novelty but as a necessity that enhances a house’s value.
What does aging in place mean to you?
BT: Actually I don’t like the term “aging in place.” I prefer “Universal Design” because it’s more inclusive. That said, there are 32 million reasons why it makes sense to design homes in which people can live their entire lives. 32 million is the number of Americans over the age of 55. That number is exploding. The aging Boomers are primarily living in suburbs, often in homes that will not age with them. The suburbs generally require driving for services, and houses located in them are often isolated and require considerable maintenance. Yet 90% of this population wants to stay in their own homes living independently as long as possible. Their homes won’t be able to accommodate them. The design of our home anticipates the needs of its residents’ changing needs, and it is located in-town, in walking distance to stores and services.
There are also young families that have need for barrier-free homes. And many families that would invite an aging relative in for a visit or to share living space, if only the house could accommodate everyone’s needs.
Universal design can make that possible. In so many ways, universal design is just sensible design. It takes into account many things that make life easier for any age. It eliminates barriers. It embraces ease of access. It is bright, open, approachable and easy to maintain. It makes so much sense; we often call it “Design Duh.”
Describe your experience working with MGA&D.
BT: We have had a delightful time working with the Graves Team. It began with the first conversations with Michael himself, just before he passed. We are honored that our little “house on the prairie” was one of his last projects. Then we began working with Principal, Tom Rowe. He’s been terrific. Tom is open-minded, inventive, and very approachable. Tom has a world-wide reputation, yet he took our project very seriously and was as easy to work with as anybody I’ve ever known. Kathy Dy, Senior Designer, has also been great to work with. She has good ideas and formed a fine collaboration with our builders, Northfield Construction Company. We’ve brought our share of challenges, especially keeping the cost affordable and our love of repurposing old architectural elements. Kathy and Tom have embraced our love of the past and have incorporated it beautifully into the present design.
What has surprised you about working with MGA&D?
BT: Approachability. I’ve worked with many of the Graves’ people over the years, but I haven’t built a home in two decades and have never personally been their client. Any Midwestern preconceived notions that we thought that we’d be working with a big high-powered Eastern architectural firm evaporated at the first meeting. We sense as much passion from them for our project as we’d imagine there would be for a $500 million mega-assignment.
Any advice for a client beginning a design project?
BT: Do your homework but don’t have all the answers. Clearly understand what you want to accomplish. At the same time be open to learn new lessons. Design is a dialogue. And if you engage in it with an open mind, you will be rewarded. Our experience hasn’t been just about building a house; it’s been about learning why universal design is important for everybody’s future.
What key takeaway have you learned working with MGA&D?
BT: Time magazine called Michael Graves “the father of the Democratization of Design:” Michael made great design available to the masses. I’d seen it in a toaster, a pancake flipper, and a toilet brush. Now I see how his spirit lives on in the creation of our home. But “our home” is not only for us; it’s for the people who live in it after us and for those all are inspired by this little house to embrace universal design. No one owns great architecture. Its life is forever, as is Michael’s influence.