Taking J. Crew’s Frank Muytjens on a Wheelchair Ride
Posted on June 10, 2014
Dear Frank Muytjens,
(For those of you who aren’t Frank Muytjens, he’s J. Crew’s devilishly handsome Menswear Director)
Over the weekend, my partner (Megan) had an anaphylactic reaction that had us rushing to the hospital. When we got there, our full terror was realized when we saw the ER team sprinting into action. Interestingly, Megan declined the provided wheelchair, insisting (through her swelling tongue, lips and throat) she was fine enough to walk. The nurse had none of it and Megan didn’t put up much of a fight. And off they went, sprinting through the corridors of the Emergency Room. The wheelchair got Megan where she needed to be as quickly as could be AND safely. That’s all it did. So why was my open minded and conscientious partner initially so unwilling submit to this chair on wheels when she didn’t question any other request or decision made that night?
A short time ago, Elle Decor featured a pair of your Marcel Breuer armchairs. Isn’t it amazing how a piece of furniture can just make a space, entirely changing how we experience or navigate our own homes? Breuer’s creations often leave me breathless, they are beautiful. Flawless and flowing, yet industrial by design. How can something so contradictory in concept be so inviting?
Did you know that the tubular steel that Breuer used in your armchairs was influenced by a company named Everest and Jennings? You see, Everest had broken his back in a mining accident and needed a sturdy and portable wheelchair to get around. So his friend Jennings helped him make one by repurposing tubular steel. Breuer claims his tubular steel chairs were influenced by bicycle handlebars. But perhaps they were also influenced by Everest and Jennings as well.
This brings me to my point. Megan’s 30 second wheelchair ride was in an Everest & Jennings designed wheelchair. Yes, the wheelchair performed flawlessly. But also yes, Megan resisted sitting in it.
Design at its core is really just problem solving. In the seasonal world of fashion, this is often forgotten. But would your Marcel Breuer chairs still be noteworthy if they were the period at the end of a sentence rather than part of an ongoing conversation? Because that’s the difference between design and disability design. When a problem is solved in disability, there is no evolution. Portable wheelchairs have not changed since the 1930s, and because of this (and because of stigma) they’re considered to be an eyesore.
Have you ever noticed the way assistive disability devices go untouched by able bodied folks? It seems so odd, because to me disability is a state of being that requires a little extra touch. A doctors touch. A loving touch. Braille. I promise that grasping a cane or sitting in a wheelchair will cause you no harm. I mean, you sit in one every day.
So I’m going to ask you to do something ABSURD. I want you to switch out your Marcel Breuer armchairs for a pair of Everest and Jennings wheelchairs. Just for a night. And then I want you to invite your neighbors over for dinner.
I want to know how it will feel to you when nobody sits in them. I want to know if you feel any shame when someone you admire questions your aesthetic decision. I wonder if you feel capable of speaking about the beauty and craftsmanship of those 1930s Everest and Jennings chairs without any irony.
I hope that through one evening of difficult questions and awkward guests, you may find the inspiration to sign YesJCrewCane, to sell a cane at J. Crew, or to come up with an inclusive idea beyond my wildest imagination.
Thank you for your time.
The Girl with the Purple Cane
P.S. Graham Pullin was the first to write about Marcel Breuer in the context of Everest and Jennings. He won’t be the last. He deserves more accolades for his book Design Meets Disability than he probably gets. It’s beautiful book. Give it a glance.
P.P.S. How do you pronounce Muytjens?
Correction: Tubular Steel has been around since the 1800s, created to make steel pipes. It would have been hard for Breuer or Everest and Jennings to invent something that was made over a decade before their birth. So I changed that paragraph. I kindly request you let me know if I publish any other inaccuracies. The murky waters of disability history can be hard to navigate, but I want to get it right.