You probably don’t normally give a second thought to products known as “aids for daily living.” These are the canes, walkers, bathtub seats and other assistive devices that represent a big chunk of the $25 billion durable medical equipment market. They’re simply not part of your world until you or your loved ones need them. But if you or they live long enough, chances are good that you will.
Caring for aging or disabled friends and relatives was the common bond that brought together Susy Korb, Rie Nørregaard and Susan Towers to found Omhu (Danish for “with great care”), a product design company specializing in products for the elderly or disabled. The company's motto is “Life is imperfect and beautiful.”
Korb and Towers knew each other from when they worked together at the specialty retailer Assouline. Korb and Nørregaard met through their children, who attended the same school.
Their search for well-designed products that help with simple tasks such as walking, bathing or reaching left the three New York City women frustrated.
“Not a single item had an ounce of style,” said Korb, Omhu’s president, “and the shopping experience was totally depressing.”
They wanted to improve these products and make them more attractive and pleasurable to use. The problem with the products was not functionality; they do indeed do what they were designed to do. But they look like it — which was an aesthetic and emotional problem for the trio.
For Towers, the company’s head of sales and marketing, what brought the issue to a head was her father, a once dashing and debonair man who underwent an 18-month period of declining health and mobility.
“My father didn’t want to use a walker,” Towers told BusinessNewsDaily. “He said, ‘I look like a nerd.’ But he often ended up sprawled on his back like an overturned turtle.”
Rather than rage against the dying of the light as poet Dylan Thomas would have recommended, or settle for products that generally looked as though they were issued from a Soviet design gulag, they decided to pool their experience in design, fashion and luxury to create products that offered more choices and would help change the way people feel about aging and disability.
The three partners started working on the company that would become Omhu in January 2010, Towers said. They began by researching the market.
“It was quite difficult,” she said. “It’s a highly fragmented market and there are some quite large manufacturers who dominate. It’s dodgy.”
They decided that their market was adult caregivers like themselves who were suddenly thrust into a position where they had to help make decisions for a relative or loved one.
“People don’t know where to go for this stuff,” Towers said. “Nobody wants to think about these things. But they’re beginning to realize there’s a need for them. You need all of this stuff at once; when you need a cane, you need a cane. By targeting caregivers —mostly women 40 to 65 — as well as users, we’re speaking to an audience that is accustomed to looking for style and performance when buying an object. We’re really designing for ourselves in the future.”
Their first product, the Omhu Cane, was introduced in November. The design of the $135 walking stick, which comes in six colors and three sizes, was inspired by the hand-finished wood of hockey sticks and skateboards. The cane is sold online and at select retail outlets, including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.
Interestingly enough, said Towers, a lot of the buyers are men who are purchasing the canes for their personal use.
“One guy bought six canes,” she said. “He wanted different colors. They’re becoming a fashion statement.”
Danish-born Nørregaard, Omhu’s creative director, is tapping internationally known designers to help assemble the Omhu design collection.
“I want to make it easy and maybe even fun to find things to help people live a better life,” she said. “Whether you’re buying a walker for your father, a cane for a friend, or a bath chair for yourself, you should be able to feel good about it. And beauty heals.”
The company anticipates sales of $2 million to $3 million in 2011, Towers said. Future product introductions will include an illuminated cane dock and a high-tech walking stick that incorporates a pedometer in the handle.
It’s a market that’s sure to grow as the silver tsunami of 79 million baby boomers in the U.S. begin crossing the threshold to seniority and changing abilities as they begin turning 65 this year.
“I think we’re going to focus on products that are helpful and useful, but look like they belong in a home, not a hospital,” Towers said. “People living longer is changing the business of aging. There are a gazillion opportunities out there. We believe that people are willing to pay a premium for well-designed products that they need.”
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.