Patricia Moore: Universal Designer, Undercover

Patricia Moore, dressed as a woman in her 80sView slideshow 

Different is the new "normal."

Or, more precisely: There never was a normal, and different isn't new. It's taken a while for the rest of the world to realize it, but industrial designer Patricia Moore has known this for decades and has forged a career out of what is now called Universal Design.

"You can't just look at the lowest common denominator," she says. "The 'other' is a critical mass. There's definitely a sexiness to making things fit! To making them useful, safe. I don't like focusing too much on the artifact, on the pretty object. I'm more excited about the potential to help a child who lost an arm sit and eat with his or her parents at the dining room table."

In the mid-1970s Moore was the only female industrial designer at Raymond Loewy's internationally renowned design office in New York. She was continually shushed by her peers for bringing up issues of safety and accessibility. As long as they were redesigning a refrigerator door or a can opener, she argued, why not rethink it with arthritis sufferers in mind?

Frustrated that she was not being heard, Moore undertook a massive project, one that earned her a place not just in the history of design, but in the history of American cultural studies. In 1979, at age 26, she enlisted the help of a Saturday Night Live makeup artist, dressed in her grandmother’s old wardrobe, and made herself over as nine different women in their 80s. She spent more than three years touring 100 cities in the United States and Canada, taking the bus, shopping, walking the streets, living life as an elder.

"I'd been raised with my grandparents, so it easy for me to get in character. Prosthetics were key. They reduced all my natural capacities as someone 26 years of age: I blurred my vision, reduced my hearing, and altered my posture and range of motion. With the use of canes, walkers, and a wheelchair, I was able to approximate all different levels of reduced mobility.

"I was prepared for the physical difficulties, but not for my own emotions that resulted from others' dismissal, cruelty, attitudes, and actions. On one occasion I was even attacked by a gang of boys on an isolated street, mugged, beaten, and left for dead. I still suffer from some of those injuries."

She warns today's industrial design students to resist the myth that a fancy job at a big firm is the pinnacle of career success. That's boring, she says, an outdated goal. "We should be thrilled that the terrible economy has turned all our received notions inside out. Opportunities are everywhere now, especially in places that weren't previously considered domains of design. Design has morphed into the cornerstone of equity, culture, and socialization. It's about bringing resources to people who don't have them."

She's delighted to be a professional advisor to one of the new ENGAGE at CCA courses this semester. Students in this Industrial Design course, taught by faculty members Rachel Robinette and Charlie Sheldon, will undertake an extensive investigation of Bethany Center Senior Housing in San Francisco and create a report with suggestions for how to improve communications and systems there.

"The students should be very excited to work at Bethany," she enthuses. "The power of design is to look at each individual, their home, their community, and the infinite small things that make for success or failure of interaction in those realms.

"An elder can sit for hours and help a little child. Really, the two ends of the age spectrum have a lot in common. We can't design separately for the 'young,' for the 'old,' and for every age in between. We have to think of it as a lifelong continuum.

"There are 78 million baby boomers, and not all of them are going to retire to a nice condo in Scottsdale. Many will need subsidized housing at a place like Bethany because of the bad economy, inadequate planning, et cetera. But subsidized housing can be made sexy! It's not about money, it's about quality of life."

Patricia Moore will deliver a lecture as part of CCA's Graduate Studies Lecture Series on Friday, February 12, at 7 p.m. in Timken Lecture Hall on the college's San Francisco campus. This event is free and open to the public.

Watch a montage of clips featuring Moore's 1970s makeup process, her walks through city streets, and subsequent TV appearances.

Read more about Patricia Moore's career and impressive roster of past clients.