Contract - Michael Graves, 2013 Legend

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Michael Graves, 2013 Legend

25 January, 2013

-By James S. Russell, FAIA


In a crowded room of an unassuming white-clapboard house in Princeton, New Jersey, Michael Graves, FAIA, deftly pirouettes in his electric-powered wheelchair. He was showing off the details of a new patient chair for the Stryker medical technology company that he had designed for people lacking leg strength or balance. “The arms are angled toward you, with a protruding loop that invites you to grasp them and ease yourself down,” he explains. The feature also helps patients get into the easiest position to rise from the chair. “The body almost raises itself.”

Healthcare design is the new passion of the architect who brought a stylistic freedom and exuberant romance to architecture in the 1980s. Graves’s designs were a bracing breath of fresh air after the dour Brutalism of the 1970s and the hardened orthodoxies of late Modernism.

Since then he has been turning out richly colored, Beaux Arts–inspired houses, hotels, libraries, museums, civic buildings, and healthcare facilities all over the world. His fluid sketches and sunny paintings continue to be influential, and he has been teaching for close to 50 years. While many architects succeed with a line of furniture or the occasional accessory, Graves has developed a product-design empire out of that clapboard house with his firm Michael Graves Design Group, which is separate from his architecture, interiors, and planning practice, Michael Graves & Associates. More than two million of his whistling-bird teapots for Alessi have sold since its introduction in 1985, and is still a familiar presence in kitchens worldwide. He has designed furniture and lighting for several companies and a multitude of household products for Target. And a new product line for jcp, the rebranded J.C. Penney chain, will roll out this spring.

It is for this body of rich, diverse, even idiosyncratic contributions to the field of design that Michael Graves is awarded the 2013 Legend Award by Contract. It’s an influential career come full circle as Graves won the second annual Designer of the Year award in 1981. In fact, Graves is the only past Designer of the Year to also receive the Legend distinction. He also won the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal—the AIA’s highest honor—in 2001.

Healthcare might seem a natural design challenge for an architect with people-pleasing buildings and consumer products in his repertoire, but it became a personal mission for Graves after recovering from a sudden paralysis in 2003 that left him with the use of only his upper body. Once his condition stabilized, he says, “I sat in my hospital room and thought, ‘OK, Michael. As a designer and an architect and a patient, what can you do?’” Along with a suite of patient-room furniture for Stryker and healthcare fabrics for cf stinson, Graves has built prototype Wounded Warrior houses for disabled soldiers, and he is designing orthopedic clinics in Vail, Colorado, and Somers Point, New Jersey.

“It has been so uplifting to be part of these projects [related to healthcare],” Graves says. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger told him the healthcare work could become his legacy. Graves says, “I hope it isn’t.”

Michael Graves: Contract magazine's 2013 Legend from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

From Rome to postmodernism

Because, of course, there is much more to Graves. Yale architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, says Graves “is extremely important to the evolution of architecture.” Stern is a few years younger than Graves but his academic career and the work of his eponymous architecture firm have long intertwined with that of Graves. “Reinventing architecture based on what went before was the big revolution of postmodernism that still holds,” Stern says. “Michael’s take on Classicism was a dramatic breakthrough that showed that architecture is a continuity with the past, not a discontinuity.”

As recipient of the Rome Prize in 1960, Graves spent two years in the Italian capital, which ultimately influenced him as an architect—though he didn’t realize it right away. He first came to prominence in the 1970s with houses and house additions austerely inked in axonometric projections. The drawings exploded ordinary residences into elaborately layered compositions of sculptural walls and pipe-railed screens. He felt that the white abstract architecture he was designing in the early 1970s alongside contemporaries like Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier (part of a group with the late Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk dubbed the New York Five or “The Whites”) didn’t take into account what had so astounded him during his time in Rome: “There was no sense of room-making [in the purely Modernist work], no sense of threshold, just expanses of glass,” Graves says. As he took time to learn history and channel what was so meaningful to him about the city, his work rapidly changed.

A turning point, according to Karen Nichols, a long-time principal at Graves, was a 1977 competition to build a cultural center spanning the Red River between Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. Graves’s recombination of vaults, keystones, and rustication drawn from Italian Mannerism and French Romantic Classicism looked effortless. His evocative renderings in terracotta, sky blue, and mauve tones on yellow tracing paper delighted many. The project was never built but was influential. Synthesizing many references, Graves “filled the project with meaning,” according to Stern. “We in America were trying to address issues in new ways. In the midst of a big economic slump, Fargo-Moorhead was a beacon of optimism.” Stern later put the project on the cover of a book on drawing he co-authored, The Architect’s Eye.

Nichols, who has overall responsibility for managing Graves’s practices, says the nine showrooms for the contract furniture company Sunar (later Sunar Hauserman) that were commissioned beginning in 1979 were instrumental. “That client relationship was important because we were allowed to execute a lot of projects very quickly. They were built fast and they were colorful, when color was coming back.”
That implementation of color was essential to the realization of buildings that would define the next decade, including the competition-winning Portland Building, in Oregon (1982), Graves’s first major completed building; the library for San Juan Capistrano, California (1983); and the headquarters for the Humana medical insurer in Louisville,Kentucky (1985). Graves was deeply immersed in the 1980s critical conversation around the proper use of history in contemporary architecture, and his work is considered critical in what coalesced into postmodernism.

No work of Graves’s became more whimsical than the 1,514-room Dolphin and 758-room Swan hotels, both opened in 1990 for the Walt Disney Company outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Graves attached a 27-story triangular slab or flattened pyramid, reminiscent of the 18th-century French Enlightenment architect Etienne-Louis Boullée, to a long, low volume festooned with fountain urns and a pair of 63-foot-high Dolphin statues waving their tales. Stepped seashell fountains descend to a circular plaza. The Swan, with more giant statues and curling waves scribed in its stucco façade, is accessed across a pond via a pedestrian causeway lined with arcades of striped tent fabric. The hotels delight visitors but the “entertainment architecture” trend unleashed by Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner seemed to confine architects to spinning fantasy stories in stucco. Architectural critics lambasted the skin-deep effects as unserious, and Graves’s cheerful wit didn’t translate well to other building types. “A school board in Indiana asked us whether we intended to put a dolphin on its building,” says Nichols, “as if that was something we would always do.”

In recent years, Graves has largely refined the language he had developed in the 1980s. He continues to assemble primary geometric volumes and deploy a bravura palette of saturated colors. But the most whimsical elements largely disappeared, even in resort projects, where Graves has consistently been successful, designing both the buildings and their interiors.

Ensuing years have brought a new sobriety as Graves was commissioned to do institutional projects, including the Denver Central Library (1995) where a cylindrical rotunda rises to a copper-clad braced roof that seems a wistful relic, evoking the massive timbers that framed Colorado mines in pioneer days. In Castalia, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (1998) in the Hague, Netherlands, Graves re-clad a 1950s high-rise in brick and added two tall peaked roofs that recall traditional Dutch architecture while making a powerful silhouette against the skyline.

Drawing to convey a story
Throughout his career in architecture and design, hand drawing and painting has been critical in Graves’s work. “For me, drawing is an immediate hand-eye-brain relationship that I can’t do without,” Graves says. “I’m fascinated by drawing upon drawings. I want to see the cross-outs, the writing in the margins.” He continues to draw and paint in studios in the Princeton office and in his home, and he says he was touched by the hundreds of letters he received after writing a September 1, 2012 op-ed article in The New York Times “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing” that advocated for the primacy of drawing in design“The computer is absolutely invaluable for working drawings,” he added. “But all the design decisions have been made by the time we start using it.”

“I always start by drawing the plan organization, not what the building looks like,” he explained. “I then know what the skin and the walls will be like.” He often clusters primary geometric forms—cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and barrel vaults. Then he opens an elaborate sequence of axial entry spaces through them. Rotundas unite vertical circulation in grand stairways, or hinge long arcaded wings.

“I like telling stories in the building,” Graves explains, and he does it largely by developing a wayfinding hierarchy: “How you walk through, how to turn right or left, how to set up primary, secondary, and any tertiary choices that you might want to make.” He orchestrates “movement and stasis, conveyed through the fabric of architecture—the color, the texture, the form.”

A teapot leads to a product-design empire
Wide public acclaim for Graves arrived again in 1997 with an extremely unique project. Big-box chain Target sponsored a fabric covering for the scaffolding used to surround the restoration of the Washington Monument, and Graves devised a super-scaled pattern of running-bond “stone” that wittily evoked the obelisk within. This led to a 13-year product-design relationship with the company and Target literally made Michael Graves a household name synonymous with quality. Graves designed more than 2,000 products for the chain, including the Pop Art Toaster and Spinning Whistle Teakettle. And the partnership extended to architectural projects like the Target Wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“In our first meeting at Target, Michael handed me an egg,” says Ron Johnson, who had worked closely with Graves as a merchandizing executive at the chain. “Ron says the egg is a universal shape that will fit everyone’s hand,” Graves says. “We made the oversized ice cream scoop with a soft-touch handle so that an arthritic person would think it not a stretch to pick up. It wasn’t just an abstract form, in other words.”

Johnson went on to shape the iconic Apple stores with Steve Jobs before becoming CEO at J.C. Penney, now rebranded simply as jcp. He has again commissioned exclusive product designs from Graves that are set to launch this March. The 300-item collection will include home goods such as a toaster, vases, and tabletop place settings, as well as utilitarian items like mops, brooms, and buckets. The stylistic cues range widely, from familiarly chubby, whimsical profiles to simple forms reminiscent of midcentury Modernism. And, yes, there will be a new Graves teakettle for jcp.

The Graves products are central to Johnson’s reinvention of the J.C. Penney brand as jcp. “We want to be involved in more aspects of peoples’ lives,” says Johnson, who is widening the store’s product choice considerably and displaying exclusive items within designer boutiques, including one Graves designed as the backdrop for his products. “The customer will experience 360 degrees of Michael Graves,” Johnson explains.

Graves was no stranger to product design prior to the relationship with Target. After graduating from Harvard, he had worked briefly for George Nelson, the renowned designer for Herman Miller. He designed elegant, high-end tableware for Swid Powell and Alessi, not to mention the famed teakettle. The lighthearted, engaging quality that brought Graves’s architecture to prominence has served the product designs well. For Target, he designed a toilet brush that sits within a container as refined in its curves as a Greek vase. The wave-form top of a scale follows the arch of the foot. Objects bulge, roll, or swell, begging to be touched.

And the versatility in product design extends to architectural products for interiors. For Skyline Design, he created the 5+ glass collection, which features patterning that offers different levels of transparency and translucency.

The success of Graves’s product design derives from more than a talent for making nice-looking objects. Nichols says that their designers research the client’s products, brand, and customers. “We walk the halls [of a hospital, for example,] and ask everyone down to the janitors to talk to us.”

First-hand evidence-based design

A decade ago, a bright future for Graves and his firm was hard to imagine after his sudden paralysis. In 2003, an untreated sinus infection spread to Graves’s spinal cord, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the chest down, requiring surgery and treatment in several rehabilitation centers on-and-off for two years. Initially, no one knew whether he would be able to continue working, but the longevity and closeness of the firm’s leadership allowed it to continue with several major projects. Graves says his architecture and product design share a humane sensibility, and that understanding has served him and his firm well. “The work is always people-centered,” he says.

So when Stryker asked him to redesign the overbed table in 2009, he took on the task with relish and was determined to “put it on a diet” after existing examples he encountered in eight hospital stays were “so heavy, so clumsy, so overdesigned,” Graves says. His Stryker models are easy to move, with soft curves, radius edges, and flush surfaces that have a serious purpose. “We made everything easy to clean because 99,000 people die every year from diseases they catch in the hospital,” Graves says. “We made the drawer pulls, the handles, and the paddle that takes it up and down very visible, not like a modern architect would do.”

His condition also contributed to his knowledge base for the design of fabrics for healthcare interiors. Graves has designed 14 fabric patterns in two collections for cf stinson. The Michael Graves Collection—developed in collaboration with Crypton—was introduced in 2006 and the Voyages Collection was launched in 2012. Graves is currently working with cf stinson to design a new collection of high-performance woven fabrics for healthcare environments targeted for introduction at NeoCon® East 2013 in Baltimore, where Graves will be a keynote speaker.

“Michael’s direct experiences as a patient related to his chronic condition have profoundly informed his view of what is most needed to promote healing and wellbeing,” says John Rowan, director of sales and product development at cf stinson. “Michael can more fully understand and empathize with what the patient experiences in the typical healthcare setting.”

Homes for wounded warriors
Graves’s design for The Wounded Warrior Home Project at Fort Belvoir, Virginia is packed with interior insights that are easily overlooked by people without disabilities. The two prototype homes completed in 2011 for service members returning to active duty at Fort Belvoir are single-story and intended to look and work like places ordinary people live in, but with five-foot wide corridors that permit two wheelchairs to comfortably pass, and easily accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Graves avoided tight turns through doorways so that the wheelchair-bound “would not feel bad about hitting the walls and corners of their own house.” Doors slide rather than swing, allowing them to be opened and closed more easily from a wheelchair.

“Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feel vulnerable to people outside,” Graves says. “You don’t want glass walls. We made a room that’s darker, where a person can huddle in a corner if they wanted—where one can do what’s necessary to feel better.”

Looking to tomorrow with vigor
Asked what unifies his diverse output, Graves says, “We’ve always tried to be humanist, and human-centered, in the products and in the architecture. It’s not about the designer, but supporting the human participation in the activities
the building hosts.”

In considering his legacy—and his continued work—Graves looks at the broader perspective beyond the recent healthcare focus. “I hope the work in the office, and the people trained in the office, all become a part of the legacy,” Graves says. “I wake up every morning raring to go, and I look forward to every day’s work. I don’t have any thoughts of retiring. I’m only 78 and I do my work with such joy. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I look forward to tomorrow with such vigor that I know that the work we are doing now will be a prelude to further work and we will continue to work through the various issues of design and architecture in a way that is really gratifying.”


James S. Russell, FAIA, is the architecture critic for
Bloomberg News [bloomberg.com/muse/james-russell] in New York and the author of The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change. A former editor at large at Architectural Record, Russell teaches at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York.

 




Michael Graves, 2013 Legend

25 January, 2013


Benoit Cortet Photography

In a crowded room of an unassuming white-clapboard house in Princeton, New Jersey, Michael Graves, FAIA, deftly pirouettes in his electric-powered wheelchair. He was showing off the details of a new patient chair for the Stryker medical technology company that he had designed for people lacking leg strength or balance. “The arms are angled toward you, with a protruding loop that invites you to grasp them and ease yourself down,” he explains. The feature also helps patients get into the easiest position to rise from the chair. “The body almost raises itself.”

Healthcare design is the new passion of the architect who brought a stylistic freedom and exuberant romance to architecture in the 1980s. Graves’s designs were a bracing breath of fresh air after the dour Brutalism of the 1970s and the hardened orthodoxies of late Modernism.

Since then he has been turning out richly colored, Beaux Arts–inspired houses, hotels, libraries, museums, civic buildings, and healthcare facilities all over the world. His fluid sketches and sunny paintings continue to be influential, and he has been teaching for close to 50 years. While many architects succeed with a line of furniture or the occasional accessory, Graves has developed a product-design empire out of that clapboard house with his firm Michael Graves Design Group, which is separate from his architecture, interiors, and planning practice, Michael Graves & Associates. More than two million of his whistling-bird teapots for Alessi have sold since its introduction in 1985, and is still a familiar presence in kitchens worldwide. He has designed furniture and lighting for several companies and a multitude of household products for Target. And a new product line for jcp, the rebranded J.C. Penney chain, will roll out this spring.

It is for this body of rich, diverse, even idiosyncratic contributions to the field of design that Michael Graves is awarded the 2013 Legend Award by Contract. It’s an influential career come full circle as Graves won the second annual Designer of the Year award in 1981. In fact, Graves is the only past Designer of the Year to also receive the Legend distinction. He also won the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal—the AIA’s highest honor—in 2001.

Healthcare might seem a natural design challenge for an architect with people-pleasing buildings and consumer products in his repertoire, but it became a personal mission for Graves after recovering from a sudden paralysis in 2003 that left him with the use of only his upper body. Once his condition stabilized, he says, “I sat in my hospital room and thought, ‘OK, Michael. As a designer and an architect and a patient, what can you do?’” Along with a suite of patient-room furniture for Stryker and healthcare fabrics for cf stinson, Graves has built prototype Wounded Warrior houses for disabled soldiers, and he is designing orthopedic clinics in Vail, Colorado, and Somers Point, New Jersey.

“It has been so uplifting to be part of these projects [related to healthcare],” Graves says. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger told him the healthcare work could become his legacy. Graves says, “I hope it isn’t.”

Michael Graves: Contract magazine's 2013 Legend from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

From Rome to postmodernism

Because, of course, there is much more to Graves. Yale architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, says Graves “is extremely important to the evolution of architecture.” Stern is a few years younger than Graves but his academic career and the work of his eponymous architecture firm have long intertwined with that of Graves. “Reinventing architecture based on what went before was the big revolution of postmodernism that still holds,” Stern says. “Michael’s take on Classicism was a dramatic breakthrough that showed that architecture is a continuity with the past, not a discontinuity.”

As recipient of the Rome Prize in 1960, Graves spent two years in the Italian capital, which ultimately influenced him as an architect—though he didn’t realize it right away. He first came to prominence in the 1970s with houses and house additions austerely inked in axonometric projections. The drawings exploded ordinary residences into elaborately layered compositions of sculptural walls and pipe-railed screens. He felt that the white abstract architecture he was designing in the early 1970s alongside contemporaries like Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier (part of a group with the late Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk dubbed the New York Five or “The Whites”) didn’t take into account what had so astounded him during his time in Rome: “There was no sense of room-making [in the purely Modernist work], no sense of threshold, just expanses of glass,” Graves says. As he took time to learn history and channel what was so meaningful to him about the city, his work rapidly changed.

A turning point, according to Karen Nichols, a long-time principal at Graves, was a 1977 competition to build a cultural center spanning the Red River between Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. Graves’s recombination of vaults, keystones, and rustication drawn from Italian Mannerism and French Romantic Classicism looked effortless. His evocative renderings in terracotta, sky blue, and mauve tones on yellow tracing paper delighted many. The project was never built but was influential. Synthesizing many references, Graves “filled the project with meaning,” according to Stern. “We in America were trying to address issues in new ways. In the midst of a big economic slump, Fargo-Moorhead was a beacon of optimism.” Stern later put the project on the cover of a book on drawing he co-authored, The Architect’s Eye.

Nichols, who has overall responsibility for managing Graves’s practices, says the nine showrooms for the contract furniture company Sunar (later Sunar Hauserman) that were commissioned beginning in 1979 were instrumental. “That client relationship was important because we were allowed to execute a lot of projects very quickly. They were built fast and they were colorful, when color was coming back.”
That implementation of color was essential to the realization of buildings that would define the next decade, including the competition-winning Portland Building, in Oregon (1982), Graves’s first major completed building; the library for San Juan Capistrano, California (1983); and the headquarters for the Humana medical insurer in Louisville,Kentucky (1985). Graves was deeply immersed in the 1980s critical conversation around the proper use of history in contemporary architecture, and his work is considered critical in what coalesced into postmodernism.

No work of Graves’s became more whimsical than the 1,514-room Dolphin and 758-room Swan hotels, both opened in 1990 for the Walt Disney Company outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Graves attached a 27-story triangular slab or flattened pyramid, reminiscent of the 18th-century French Enlightenment architect Etienne-Louis Boullée, to a long, low volume festooned with fountain urns and a pair of 63-foot-high Dolphin statues waving their tales. Stepped seashell fountains descend to a circular plaza. The Swan, with more giant statues and curling waves scribed in its stucco façade, is accessed across a pond via a pedestrian causeway lined with arcades of striped tent fabric. The hotels delight visitors but the “entertainment architecture” trend unleashed by Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner seemed to confine architects to spinning fantasy stories in stucco. Architectural critics lambasted the skin-deep effects as unserious, and Graves’s cheerful wit didn’t translate well to other building types. “A school board in Indiana asked us whether we intended to put a dolphin on its building,” says Nichols, “as if that was something we would always do.”

In recent years, Graves has largely refined the language he had developed in the 1980s. He continues to assemble primary geometric volumes and deploy a bravura palette of saturated colors. But the most whimsical elements largely disappeared, even in resort projects, where Graves has consistently been successful, designing both the buildings and their interiors.

Ensuing years have brought a new sobriety as Graves was commissioned to do institutional projects, including the Denver Central Library (1995) where a cylindrical rotunda rises to a copper-clad braced roof that seems a wistful relic, evoking the massive timbers that framed Colorado mines in pioneer days. In Castalia, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (1998) in the Hague, Netherlands, Graves re-clad a 1950s high-rise in brick and added two tall peaked roofs that recall traditional Dutch architecture while making a powerful silhouette against the skyline.

Drawing to convey a story
Throughout his career in architecture and design, hand drawing and painting has been critical in Graves’s work. “For me, drawing is an immediate hand-eye-brain relationship that I can’t do without,” Graves says. “I’m fascinated by drawing upon drawings. I want to see the cross-outs, the writing in the margins.” He continues to draw and paint in studios in the Princeton office and in his home, and he says he was touched by the hundreds of letters he received after writing a September 1, 2012 op-ed article in The New York Times “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing” that advocated for the primacy of drawing in design“The computer is absolutely invaluable for working drawings,” he added. “But all the design decisions have been made by the time we start using it.”

“I always start by drawing the plan organization, not what the building looks like,” he explained. “I then know what the skin and the walls will be like.” He often clusters primary geometric forms—cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and barrel vaults. Then he opens an elaborate sequence of axial entry spaces through them. Rotundas unite vertical circulation in grand stairways, or hinge long arcaded wings.

“I like telling stories in the building,” Graves explains, and he does it largely by developing a wayfinding hierarchy: “How you walk through, how to turn right or left, how to set up primary, secondary, and any tertiary choices that you might want to make.” He orchestrates “movement and stasis, conveyed through the fabric of architecture—the color, the texture, the form.”

A teapot leads to a product-design empire
Wide public acclaim for Graves arrived again in 1997 with an extremely unique project. Big-box chain Target sponsored a fabric covering for the scaffolding used to surround the restoration of the Washington Monument, and Graves devised a super-scaled pattern of running-bond “stone” that wittily evoked the obelisk within. This led to a 13-year product-design relationship with the company and Target literally made Michael Graves a household name synonymous with quality. Graves designed more than 2,000 products for the chain, including the Pop Art Toaster and Spinning Whistle Teakettle. And the partnership extended to architectural projects like the Target Wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“In our first meeting at Target, Michael handed me an egg,” says Ron Johnson, who had worked closely with Graves as a merchandizing executive at the chain. “Ron says the egg is a universal shape that will fit everyone’s hand,” Graves says. “We made the oversized ice cream scoop with a soft-touch handle so that an arthritic person would think it not a stretch to pick up. It wasn’t just an abstract form, in other words.”

Johnson went on to shape the iconic Apple stores with Steve Jobs before becoming CEO at J.C. Penney, now rebranded simply as jcp. He has again commissioned exclusive product designs from Graves that are set to launch this March. The 300-item collection will include home goods such as a toaster, vases, and tabletop place settings, as well as utilitarian items like mops, brooms, and buckets. The stylistic cues range widely, from familiarly chubby, whimsical profiles to simple forms reminiscent of midcentury Modernism. And, yes, there will be a new Graves teakettle for jcp.

The Graves products are central to Johnson’s reinvention of the J.C. Penney brand as jcp. “We want to be involved in more aspects of peoples’ lives,” says Johnson, who is widening the store’s product choice considerably and displaying exclusive items within designer boutiques, including one Graves designed as the backdrop for his products. “The customer will experience 360 degrees of Michael Graves,” Johnson explains.

Graves was no stranger to product design prior to the relationship with Target. After graduating from Harvard, he had worked briefly for George Nelson, the renowned designer for Herman Miller. He designed elegant, high-end tableware for Swid Powell and Alessi, not to mention the famed teakettle. The lighthearted, engaging quality that brought Graves’s architecture to prominence has served the product designs well. For Target, he designed a toilet brush that sits within a container as refined in its curves as a Greek vase. The wave-form top of a scale follows the arch of the foot. Objects bulge, roll, or swell, begging to be touched.

And the versatility in product design extends to architectural products for interiors. For Skyline Design, he created the 5+ glass collection, which features patterning that offers different levels of transparency and translucency.

The success of Graves’s product design derives from more than a talent for making nice-looking objects. Nichols says that their designers research the client’s products, brand, and customers. “We walk the halls [of a hospital, for example,] and ask everyone down to the janitors to talk to us.”

First-hand evidence-based design

A decade ago, a bright future for Graves and his firm was hard to imagine after his sudden paralysis. In 2003, an untreated sinus infection spread to Graves’s spinal cord, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the chest down, requiring surgery and treatment in several rehabilitation centers on-and-off for two years. Initially, no one knew whether he would be able to continue working, but the longevity and closeness of the firm’s leadership allowed it to continue with several major projects. Graves says his architecture and product design share a humane sensibility, and that understanding has served him and his firm well. “The work is always people-centered,” he says.

So when Stryker asked him to redesign the overbed table in 2009, he took on the task with relish and was determined to “put it on a diet” after existing examples he encountered in eight hospital stays were “so heavy, so clumsy, so overdesigned,” Graves says. His Stryker models are easy to move, with soft curves, radius edges, and flush surfaces that have a serious purpose. “We made everything easy to clean because 99,000 people die every year from diseases they catch in the hospital,” Graves says. “We made the drawer pulls, the handles, and the paddle that takes it up and down very visible, not like a modern architect would do.”

His condition also contributed to his knowledge base for the design of fabrics for healthcare interiors. Graves has designed 14 fabric patterns in two collections for cf stinson. The Michael Graves Collection—developed in collaboration with Crypton—was introduced in 2006 and the Voyages Collection was launched in 2012. Graves is currently working with cf stinson to design a new collection of high-performance woven fabrics for healthcare environments targeted for introduction at NeoCon® East 2013 in Baltimore, where Graves will be a keynote speaker.

“Michael’s direct experiences as a patient related to his chronic condition have profoundly informed his view of what is most needed to promote healing and wellbeing,” says John Rowan, director of sales and product development at cf stinson. “Michael can more fully understand and empathize with what the patient experiences in the typical healthcare setting.”

Homes for wounded warriors
Graves’s design for The Wounded Warrior Home Project at Fort Belvoir, Virginia is packed with interior insights that are easily overlooked by people without disabilities. The two prototype homes completed in 2011 for service members returning to active duty at Fort Belvoir are single-story and intended to look and work like places ordinary people live in, but with five-foot wide corridors that permit two wheelchairs to comfortably pass, and easily accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Graves avoided tight turns through doorways so that the wheelchair-bound “would not feel bad about hitting the walls and corners of their own house.” Doors slide rather than swing, allowing them to be opened and closed more easily from a wheelchair.

“Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feel vulnerable to people outside,” Graves says. “You don’t want glass walls. We made a room that’s darker, where a person can huddle in a corner if they wanted—where one can do what’s necessary to feel better.”

Looking to tomorrow with vigor
Asked what unifies his diverse output, Graves says, “We’ve always tried to be humanist, and human-centered, in the products and in the architecture. It’s not about the designer, but supporting the human participation in the activities
the building hosts.”

In considering his legacy—and his continued work—Graves looks at the broader perspective beyond the recent healthcare focus. “I hope the work in the office, and the people trained in the office, all become a part of the legacy,” Graves says. “I wake up every morning raring to go, and I look forward to every day’s work. I don’t have any thoughts of retiring. I’m only 78 and I do my work with such joy. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I look forward to tomorrow with such vigor that I know that the work we are doing now will be a prelude to further work and we will continue to work through the various issues of design and architecture in a way that is really gratifying.”


James S. Russell, FAIA, is the architecture critic for
Bloomberg News [bloomberg.com/muse/james-russell] in New York and the author of The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change. A former editor at large at Architectural Record, Russell teaches at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York.

 

 


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