The Next Chapter
Michael Graves adds painting to an already rich résumé
It’s probably a safe bet that as you are reading this article, someone is pouring water from a teakettle designed by Michael Graves. It’s more than likely that someone is pushing a clove of garlic through a Graves-designed press or checking the time on a Graves-designed wristwatch. And it’s quite possible that in Orlando or Burbank or Marne-la-Vallée, France, a visitor is staring at the facade of a Graves-designed building or in Denver, Topeka, or San Juan Capistrano, California, is checking a book out of a Graves-designed library. The rich and varied work of Michael Graves has permeated our lives.
Graves’s buildings for the Walt Disney Company and gadgets and objects for Target have given him the kind of instant recognition that most architects never attain. In 1998 he designed the scaffold that encased the Washington Monument during its two-year restoration, another prime public moment. The wit and caprice, not to mention the deep understanding and love for history, that moved Graves to put a miniature bird on the spout of a whistling teakettle or giant swans and dolphins atop a hotel are only part of a much deeper story.
It is a story told in overlapping chapters of a multifaceted career. It’s a story that has great peaks (a national Medal of Arts bestowed by Bill Clinton) and deep valleys. In 2002 Graves was paralyzed from the waist down after a virulent sinus infection moved through his body; he nearly died, more than once, but has emerged from this to become a leading proponent of reinvigorated health care design—with work that ranges from better hospital furniture and wheelchairs to his recent widely regarded Wounded Warrior housing project at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Michael Graves turns eighty this year, and simultaneously celebrates his firm’s first half-century of architecture and design
A major retrospective exhibition, Michael Graves—Past as Prologue, opens on October 18 at Grounds for Sculpture on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Trenton and runs through April 5, 2015. It will showcase the five decades of Michael Graves and Associates with a chronological look at architecture, design, drawing, and painting. This last, Graves’s latest (and in some ways longest-standing) calling—along with architecture, design, and teaching—will also be honored at the Studio Vendome gallery in New York in an exhibition, opening October 8, of his luminous acrylic paintings curated by the longtime Metropolitan Museum of Art design and architecture curator Jane Adlin.
“I just do it,” he says of this current prevailing passion. “I have this stupid little room in my house downstairs that was made for my mother who never got to use it. I’m in the smallest room in my house, and it is filled with paintings from floor to ceiling.” His process is replete with decades worth of notebooks full of drawings of observed and remembered landscapes. He draws every day (“it’s like playing the piano, though I’m not a musician—you have to practice”) and then paints from sketches of Italian landscapes made over the years that he rearranges on the picture plane “to make a new composition,” he says. A painter friend said to him recently, “Michael I think you’re onto something,” but Graves demurs. “There’s a certain sameness to them I think,” he says, “a specific palette—I don’t use bright colors and I don’t use heavy impasto—but there’s also a lightness to them. I think they wear very well.”
Graves grew up in Indiana, went off to study architecture at the University of Cincinnati, then Harvard. In 1960 he won the Rome Prize and headed to Italy, probably his greatest life-shaping force. When he returned he opted to teach at Princeton University (which he did for thirty-nine years) and for a few early years was part of a group of young intellectuals eventually and notoriously dubbed “The Five Whites” by Tom Wolfe in his still-entertaining From Bauhaus to Our House (for the record, the others were Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduck, Peter Eisenman, and Richard Meier). Then Graves began producing work that diverged not just from his fellow architectural intellectuals but for the most part from any other architecture being produced in America. It was metaphorical, allusive, figurative, classically inspired, and most definitely not white.
Among his earliest commissions were the Newark Museum (which remains an ongoing partnership), the Clos Pegase Winery in Napa County, California, and the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky. The latter two, especially, were full expressions of a new aesthetic particular to Graves—a muted color palette, over-scaled ornamentation that alludes to a long history of architecture, and a visual and tactile intensity that most other buildings of the 1980s lacked. Early on, in an essay entitled “A Case for Figurative Architecture,” Graves likened his work to poetry, contrasting it to the more utilitarian technical approach espoused by many modernists. “Poetic forms in architecture are sensitive to the figurative, associative, and anthropomorphic attitudes of a culture,” he wrote.
In the late 1980s Graves won a competition (against Robert Venturi and Alan Lapidus) for a new hotel complex at Walt Disney World that became the iconic Swan and Dolphin—notable for the outsized mythological and classic forms atop it (the dolphins, especially, alluded to Bernini, which was not lost on all Disney visitors). Almost simultaneously, Graves was commissioned by the then head of Disney, Michael Eisner, to design the company’s corporate headquarters in Burbank, which likewise incorporated powerful cultural imagery (in this case, Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs holding up the pediment). Memorable, of course, but these buildings also captured the attention of an intrigued general public and provoked their fair share of discussion and debate.
A breathtaking number of building commissions followed, across America and around the world—more than 150—accompanied by four major monographs (among other books on his work), documentaries, exhibitions, and more. And yet, at the same time, he was establishing a second path, one less usual for American architects. In the heady 1980s Graves was one of a number of architects called upon by the Italian manufacturer Alessi to design products, and he was to produce some of the company’s most iconic pieces, notably his bird-whistle teakettle.
A particular shade of blue became so associated with him that it is often called Graves blue
Then Target called, and Graves was ready. His accessibly priced design collections for Target were a sensation to the point that the particular shade of stone blue Graves favors became inextricably linked with him. The Target designs (and his product design in general) are as diverse as can be imagined—from cleaning tools to chess and checkers sets (an exhibition devoted to Graves’s game designs was on view for much of 2014 at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis). And when Ron Johnson, the retail guru behind Target’s successful branding schemes, moved on—albeit briefly—to J. C. Penney, he commissioned yet another line of household goods. Graves’s firm will continue to design and produce for J. C. Penney for another four-plus years.
If you ask Graves about his products—a whisk or a spatula for example—he will say “shake my hand.” And you do. “Now, keep that grip,” he’ll instruct and then tell you to pick up the spatula, which with its fat blue handle fits perfectly in your rounded hand. The reasoning isn’t so different from, for example, what might on the surface seem to be a complex architectural move—the placement of a window sill or a wainscot.
Somewhat slowed, but definitely not stopped by the paralysis, Graves continues apace. He adapted his house (a former warehouse just blocks from the university in Princeton) to accommodate his wheelchair needs and found a new passion in accessible design and health care. His enchanting gabled houses at Fort Belvoir are the most recent addition to this area of his work.
“Michael Graves has created art that surrounds our lives,” said President Bill Clinton in 1999 as he presented the National Medal of Arts to the architect, designer, teacher, and artist. And true, few architects—at least American architects—become household names in the way that Michael Graves has.