Architect Michael Graves: Designs in Mind

New Jersey’s renowned architect/designer reflects on form,
function, and those fanciful whistling tea kettles.

Renowned architect Michael Graves reflects on form, function, and those fanciful whistling tea kettles.
Photo by Barry Johnson.

Michael Graves’s designs are known worldwide, from the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Walt Disney World to the Alessi tea kettle with the whimsical bird spout—a project that propelled Graves to design stardom some twenty years ago.

A Princeton resident since 1962, Graves has contributed much to the New Jersey landscape, including the Newark Museum’s multiple additions, Laurel Hall at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the recently completed Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton.

Born in Indianapolis, Graves studied at the University of Cincinnati, Harvard University, and the American Academy in Rome before arriving at Princeton, where he taught for nearly 40 years. Today he is the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus.

Graves founded his architectural firm, Michael Graves & Associates (MGA), in 1964, and in 2003 split off the firm’s products and graphics practices to form Michael Graves Design Group (MGDG). Both have offices in Princeton and New York.

In 2003, a mysterious ailment—thought to be bacterial meningitis—left Graves paralyzed from the waist down. Yet he hasn’t slowed a bit, even as he nears his 75th birthday. A massive resort designed by Graves’s firm is nearing completion in Sentosa off the coast of Singapore, and he still churns out dozens of household- product designs through his long association with Target. Lately, Graves is also bringing good design to handicapped-accessible products through his partnership with manufacturer Drive Medical.

Recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Urban Land Institute, Graves sat with me, along with two of his studio heads—MGA managing principal Karen Nichols and MGDG managing principal Linda Kinsey—to discuss his legacy. The conversation ranged from the influence on his early career of design legends Ray Eames and Le Corbusier to those ubiquitous tea kettles.

LP: You have a long résumé of impressive buildings, but it seems you are best known for your product designs.

MG: Oh, I hope not!

LP: How did you get started in product design?

MG: I grew up in a time when Eames and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects were putting their furniture and objects on the market. You could buy some of those objects on the open market. Eames was a huge influence on all of us in school. I think because not only was he an architect—although he didn’t do very much architecture—but because he was also making great films, and he made chairs and other things for one of the leading furniture companies in the country, Herman Miller.

[Making furniture] was always an abiding interest of mine. I thought it was what architects did….For my first apartment, when I was first married, I went to the lumberyard and bought stuff and made couches. My then wife made cushions. I was really very interested in furniture. I was in school for architecture, but I had to live, and making furniture was different from designing buildings, which I couldn’t do for myself.

LP: You’re also a painter.

MG: When I started my own practice I was criticized, not because I was doing product design but because, like Le Corbusier, I was insisting on paintings in all of my buildings. I would paint wall murals in the houses that I designed, just as he did in the ’20s and ’30s. He was kind of a mentor in the sense that I knew his work inside out and was fascinated—all of us were fascinated—by what he had brought to modern architecture. People would say Michael Graves was trained as a painter, but he’s doing architecture now.  That was hard to overcome.

LP: Has that mindset changed?

MG: It has now. Something happened. [My firm was] asked—along with eleven other architects—to design a sterling-silver tea service. We know we were invited because we were doing the interiors…for an upstart furniture company called Sunar. We had done five or six of those interiors, and they were heavily, heavily published. Everywhere. I really think it was the beginning of what later became known as postmodernism.

LP: What year was that?

MG: 1979. I was young, I was on the list suddenly. So the manufacturer, Alessi, asked these dozen architects around the world to design a tea service in sterling silver.He said, which has never happened since: “There is no budget. You can spend as much as you want.”

LP: That must have been nice.

MG: It was hard, because you want to be realistic, and yet there’s no budget. If they had been more critical, I think our project probably would have been better. But nevertheless, they were supposed to make one for the Alessi showroom and one to travel around to museums and galleries.

LP: So the design reached an entirely different audience.

MG: Of course. And it expressed that Alessi was coming to the West, to America, to the East, to Japan. Making artifacts that were art with a capital A: Art. A signal. And it was covered, heavily covered. Nothing like this was happening. And in the first year, we had sold maybe 30 or 40 sets. That’s a lot. They expected to sell none. They did not want to make any more! From that commercial success, Alberto Alessi came back to us and said, “What we’d like to do is something more utilitarian, and since you’ve sold the best out of all the architects, we want to ask you to do a tea kettle for us. We want a flawless kettle, one that will boil water faster than any other kettle.” Asked what I thought it ought to sell for, I said I wanted it to sell for whatever a Revere kettle sold for. I thought it should be no more than $39.95, but it came out at double that and eventually settled at about $125 or $140. And it stayed there for almost all its life. It has sold very, very well. And people say, just as you did at the start of this interview, “How awkward it must be for Michael Graves to be better known for a tea kettle than for a building.”

LP: I didn’t mean it quite like that. But even my kids know you through your tea kettles at Target.

MG: When life at Target happened, it changed design quite significantly, not just for us. By that time, when Target contacted us, we’d already done 125 different objects for Alessi. Some sold well, some didn’t sell well. The tea kettle sold the best of anything that the company, for three generations, had ever sold. It’s number one, and it’s still for sale, some twenty years later. It sold about a million and three-quarters so far. That’s a lot for a tea kettle.

LP: And the product-design work snowballs into  building projects, right?

Karen Nichols: One of the things that distinguished Michael is that he took the design of those objects as seriously as he did the design of a building. For example, in a building, you have to look at a bunch of functional things that have to be solved. It’s not all hype or design for design’s sake. So when he looks at an object like a tea kettle, it did actually boil the water faster, because of the diameter of the base and the angle of the sides. By taking the craft and the design and the function very seriously as a discipline, he allowed it to be successful beyond just being decoration or putting your name on some wacky idea.

LP: Michael, you’ve just been honored by the Urban Land Institute. What does that mean to you?
It means I’m getting old.

MG: It means you’re being honored! You’ve also received the National Medal of Arts (in 1999) and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (in 2001). You’re quite honored.
The honors are wonderful. I love hearing about them and getting them. But if you traded one of those honors for a telephone call from a prospective client who said, “I want you to build a new hospital for the state of New Jersey,” that means so much more.

LP: How do you see your legacy?

MG: I suppose…all of our collective work. But I suppose even more lasting, is that we might be able to play a role—and it hasn’t been played yet—in making products and architecture for people like me in wheelchairs, and the elderly.

LP: Does the merger of good design and accessibility have to be unusual?

MG: We always correct people who say, “You’re trying to make this look better.” Well yes, we want it to look better, but that’s easy. The look and the function are one and the same. They are not separate. It looks good because it functions beautifully. That message is very hard. We end up making nail clippers when we want to be making hospitals.

LP: Is your association with Drive Medical products the first step in this?

Linda Kinsey: It’s our first foray into it. And yes, it’s challenging from both sides; there’s a learning curve. We really challenged the whole notion of functionality. But it did give us a bit of expert authority in the category, and we’re now moving into other areas of health-care design.

LP: In terms of change, Michael, what’s happening in New Jersey?

MG: I hate the idea that Newark and Camden are seen in such negative ways. The Newark Museum and the Symphony and the Devils and so on are powerful symbols of a city. Think, when the Devils won the Stanley Cup last, they couldn’t have a parade down Broad Street. They had a parade in the Devils’ parking lot. That’s pathetic. But now they can do it down a main street of Newark. They have become the Newark Devils not just the New Jersey Devils. That’s remarkable. But overall, how do you get the middle class to move back? It’s always tied to schools. New Jersey needs good schools, good teachers, especially in those two cities.

LP: How do you use good design to help bring about that change?

Nichols: We’ve been part of that scene for so many years. Michael did the master plan for the Newark Museum in 1967, and then a group of us, myself included, did another master plan in 1982 that led to a major renovation. It won an AIA National Honor Award. We’ve always been very loyal to Newark. Whether it’s at the museum or at NJIT, we’ve been very involved in Newark.

LP: So, Michael, what’s your favorite project in New Jersey?

MG: Always the next one. And if you don’t like that answer, then I’ll say my own house. Because it’s a laboratory, and I get to do things there, and I can follow it through and change this and change that.

Click On The Links Below To Read More Home and Garden Stories:

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Leeding The Way: Leadership in energy and environment design, the new wave of ultra-green certification, moves from schools and businesses into private homes.

Vintage Points: The New Jersey homeowners—wine lovers all—create cool cellar spaces to store and enjoy their bottled bounty.

Rainbow On The Hill: History blooms each spring at Montclair’s Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

Superior Interiors: Members of New Jersey Monthly’s Design Advisory Council pinpoint the latest trends in Garden State homes.

Home of the Brave: A Jersey town honors its wounded Iraq veteran with a place that’s truly his own.

Showing Off: Everybody loves visiting a show house. It’s an amazing opportunity to enter a grand home and see the latest in decorating ideas from top designers.

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