Michael Graves "Archetype of the 90's"

The Internationally known architect and Princeton University Professor has become a household word.

-Maria Lobiondo

Spring, 1995

In a line-up of contemporary architects, Michael Graves (Photo, 19K) certainly can be counted among the heavy hitters, such as Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry and Charles Gwathmey. But the traditional concept of "architect'' is perhaps too narrow a classification to describe Graves' appetite for design. While his colleagues might be called building specialists, Graves dubs himself a "general practitioner.'' Given the chance, he'll sketch furniture, umbrellas, wallets, wall clocks - you name it, and Michael Graves has probably given his spin to it.

The internationally known architect and Princeton University professor has become almost a household word - not just for his architecture, although his work, (including the Swan and Dolphin hotels in Disney World), are by no means unknown. No, Graves has delved into product design with an enthusiasm worthy of Martha Stewart. And like the doyene of the fashionable living scene, when Graves puts his name on something it gains instant cachet.

Graves blends classical allusions and whimsy. He refines an idea to its essence and then adds a distinctive stroke. It's this educated eye and sense of humor that have made him popular. The list of items he's put his mark on runs the gamut from the unusual to the mundane: charm bracelets, kitchen timers, frames, lamps, personal organizers, vases, t-shirts, salt and pepper shakers, china, book ends, weather vanes, and tuxedo studs are just a sampling.

Of course, it wasn't always like this. There was a time when Michael Graves struggled to be noticed. Early on in his career he did more drawings than completed projects, but the drawings usually were published. He was put down as being "too painterly," he says, but adds, "they don't say that now."

In the late 1970s, Sunar Hauserman furniture asked him to design a furniture showroom, and since "I didn't have a lot of work in those days," Graves said yes on the condition he could also design furniture. He insists, however, that designing products was never a hobby, more an outgrowth of his fascination with the visual world - its textures, colors, and configurations.

As an architect, commissions such as the Portland Building in Oregon and the Humana Building in Louisville, Ky. brought him into the limelight. His credits also include the San Juan Capistrano Library, the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the expansion of the Newark Museum. He has received numerous awards.

In the home design world, it was the creation in 1985 of the Alessi teapot with its whimsical bird spout that pushed Graves into stardom. More than a half million of those stainless steel tea kettles whistle in homes now. They first retailed at $60; you can purchase one for $135 today. Graves has a special etching machine to autograph the kettles, and has held celebrity signings they way authors do. Not signing the kettle would be like Joe DiMaggio not signing a baseball, he once told a reporter.

Not surprisingly, Graves says the teapot ranks among his favorites in the things he has designed. A birthday party to celebrate the teapot's tenth birthday is reportedly in the works, but no details have been finalized as yet. Also in the works is a new teapot, this time made of enamel with a kinetic whistle like a windmill, which will be sold in the $50 range.

Alessi, the Italian manufacturer, continues to commission Graves to design for the firm. Most recently, the 60-year-old architect designed two china patterns and silverware for Alessi. He has designed a dripless coffee maker for Swid Powell, a new corporate image for Lenox china. He receives countless requests and does turn down some.

"Finding people to make (products) is not hard," the architect says. "Finding people to make them well is something else." He estimates about 30 percent of his firm's business comes from product ventures.

Locally, he joined ranks with Robert Landau of Landau's on Nassau Street to do blankets of pure Irish wool. The two had not met before Landau, whose store specializes in wool items, called and suggested "We have the sources and you have the design." The result of that joint venture was the creation of three wool throws in colors and design by Graves, now selling at both Landau's and Graves Design.

As a kid, the Indianapolis-born Graves spent countless hours drawing. "The more I did, the better I got," he says. "I wasn't good at much else." His mother panicked when he said he wanted to be an artist, however, telling him, "Unless you're as good as Picasso, you'll starve." She suggested he consider careers that use drawing - engineering and architecture - and when he investigated each, he chose architecture.

After studies as at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University, Graves headed to the American Academy in Rome in 1960 and seems to have soaked up plenty of Italian influence while there; his classical illusions in architecture and design products are part of what make his work accessible and pleasing. He also concentrates on a palette of elegant blues, reds and ochers that recall Tuscan landscapes.

It was as a starving student in Rome that Graves says he first began experimenting with product design. He claims he didn't know it was considered low brow for an architect to do so; on the contrary, he cites those associated with Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus in the early 1900's as others who dabbled as he does now.

The difference between the Bauhaus and Graves, however, might be summarized in one word: marketing. It was also Graves' good fortune to catch the brass ring of fame in the 1980's, when an architect's name on a product elevated it to snob status. He has taken these two factors and managed to propel himself forward to the point where he is today - prosperous and pursued.

Architecture's "general practitioner" is cordial and welcoming on first meeting; Graves has a good "bedside manner" with those outside architectural circles, one might say. This could come from his years in academia. He seems able to break down the heady stuff of architectural abstraction into ordinary English, which no doubt endears him to clients. He also does not rely solely on drawings to get his message across; he includes small models in his briefcase to give clients a three-dimensional feel for what he is trying to do.

A "night person," Graves is rarely in the office when corporate America is starting its day. His black Labrador retriever Bill can often be found lounging at his feet while he works at his desk. Some of the Biedermeier furniture he collects graces the office conference room. He also has an extensive music collection to keep him company while he burns the midnight oil; he favors a diverse mix of classical to Dylan.

Graves is not the corduroy and tweed jacket kind of professor, but the feel of his office is certainly closer to a prestige prep school than a corporate law firm. He united two historic buildings on the corner of Nassau and Harrison streets to create the office, which seems like a warren of rooms to the uninitiated. The creak of good wood floors intermingles with conversation in the overstuffed offices where his 70-plus employees work. They all sit in chairs their employer designed.To relieve some of the cramped quarters, Graves set up his design store across Nassau Street in an 1850's house painted the same yellow as his offices. But the store itself is not spacious. In one small room, about 250 square feet of space, there is floor to ceiling Graves design. Mail and phone orders bolster the shop's business.

Princeton may not be home to the only Graves Design Store for long, however. Graves recently hired Jack Cassidy, who worked with Ralph Lauren, to help decide where other Graves stores might flourish. It's likely one or two additional design studios will open in the next few years.

Graves is first and foremost an architect, however, and while he has captured the popular imagination with his design products, it is his buildings by which he is measured in his own profession.

A Princeton University dictum says a University professor can not design for the school, so there are no Graves buildings on campus - a sore point with Graves himself. " It's too bad to teach at a place over 30 years and see colleagues who've left getting (commissions) for work," he says. "I don't have an identity with town and that's a disappointment, not being able to contribute to your place."

He has worked on several homes in town (drive by 124 Snowden Lane for a look at one) and has spent years on his own residence, a 1920's warehouse he converted to his own "villa."

One of the additions he created was a kitchen and dining room for John and Margery Claghorn on Vandeventer Street. The work, built in 1974, is not visible from the front of the Victorian home. Mrs. Claghorn describes the architect as "easy and wonderful to work with." Graves created an open, airy space with clean, unfussy lines. The palette inside was green, pinks and blues; outside, earthy colors were used. But the Claghorns did get to a point where they wanted to modify Graves' design, first by adding a bathroom and later by re-painting the walls. The outside of the addition is now the same color as the rest of the house. Mrs. Claghorn called to consult the architect about the changes. The response from Graves, she reported, was "Architecture is for your convenience and pleasure. If you want to change, you do it. It's still the most divine kitchen in Princeton," Mrs. Claghorn maintains.

The couple also hired Graves to design a new back porch which has no roof, only stanchions. "The builders didn't understand," Mrs. Claghorn remembers with a laugh. "But (the stanchions) give it style."

As Graves became more well known, "busloads of people from all over the world" would arrive and ring the Claghorns' doorbell or stand on the street and strain to peek at the addition. While that curiosity has lessened - there are bigger Graves buildings to inspect now - it has not stopped. Recently a South American couple rang the Claghorns' bell to see the Graves addition.

Elihu and Geulah Abrahams also hired Graves. In 1981, they asked him to design their dance studio, which has become the home of her own troupe, Danceworks. But by the time Graves was finished, he had left his mark on the entire Littlebrook-area house save one bedroom and bathroom. Ms. Abrahams and Graves were colleagues at Princeton University before she left to devote herself full-time to her own dance company

"Michael asked, `What kind of things do you like? What kind of things do you hate?' " Ms. Abrahams recalls. "It was amazing how he incorporated things from knowing me years before doing the project."The feeling of the studio, painted off-white, terra cotta and gray blue, is "restful," Ms. Abrahams says. The outside addition uses the same colors.

Graves own home has been featured in HOUSE & GARDEN and Metropolitan Home. It's his longest running project, a work constantly in progress. Described as an L-shaped building on a landlocked site, it has been the backdrop for office parties and benefits. But it is not from his kitchen that he smiles coolly in Miele appliance advertisements, although in those ads he is surrounded by his own "toys." Graves currently is working on a commissioned home in Massachusetts for two artists. "I love doing houses," he says. "I love the domestic life of buildings, a room, making it human." This affection for interiors is another reason why Graves finds it so natural to experiment with creating objects for the home.

Graves estimates he receives several requests weekly from philanthropies, and honors as many of them as he can. These have included autographed prints, a wreath for a Christmas auction in Denver, and a banner for the American Academy in Rome. Princeton has not been ignored, either. A Tuscan-inspired landscape mural covers wall in the main commons of the John Witherspoon Middle School (done when his son was a student there) , and he has been very supportive of the Arts Council of Princeton, most recently by doing a sketch of how the current building on Paul Robeson Place and Witherspoon Street could be enlarged and refined to meet standards for the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also is on the board of Ms. Abrahams' Danceworks, and as recently as last fall contributed Graves products as door prizes for a benefit for the dance troupe.

It's been more than 30 years that Graves has lived in Princeton and lately he's been thinking about moving on. When he accepted the teaching position at Princeton University initially, he thought he would stay only one year.

He is disappointed not to have built more here, "a couple of small additions in Princeton doesn't make a career," he says dryly - but still he says. Early on, his connection to the University gave him visibility and a salary he could count on. Now, teaching is actually expensive for him in terms of his time but he says he feels it's his way of "paying back" for the support he received as he started out.

"I guess I feel about Princeton the way some doctors must feel about teaching hospitals," he explains. "There's a sweetness about the place."


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