Belatedly, I have come to regard Michael Graves, who died yesterday at the age of 80, as possessing the best attribute that an American practitioner (in pretty much any field) can: Graves is Jeffersonian. Like that endlessly curious, inventive founding father, Graves went to Europe, immersed himself in classical architecture, and used what he absorbed to transform the American landscape. He did this in ways that are obvious—like designing the building that can be thought of as the Bauhaus of Postmodernism—and in ways that are far more subtle. Here are the four remarkably disparate things for which I’ll remember him:
1. The New Jersey Corridor Project
The headline in the Dec. 24, 1965, issue of Life magazine says it all: “Self-sufficient structures carry a metropolis across New Jersey.” The magazine’s two-page spread showed a linear city—a matched pair of radically elongated buildings stretching for perhaps 20 miles, with industry located in the right-hand strip and homes, shops, and schools in the left-hand strip. Nowhere in the story will you learn the names of the young architects (“a team of Princeton University Professors”) who spearheaded this extraordinary work of visionary modernism. It was Peter Eisenman, FAIA, and Michael Graves. At that point in their lives, they were joined at the hip, thought of around campus as a single person: Eisenman Graves. Considering the direction that Graves later took, it’s fascinating that he was once more Corbu than Corbu. The fervor of the young iconoclasts, staying up all night to redraw New Jersey, must have been a sight to behold. As Eisenman recently recalled: “We would draw on the same sheet of paper. He could draw upside down. I couldn’t.”
2. The Portland Building
“I don’t care if it’s made of oatmeal. It’s going to be on budget.” That’s what Michael Graves remembers telling the builder with whom he was paired in a 1980 competition to design a civic office building for Portland, Ore. The Portland Building, completed in 1982, was Graves’ first major work. He did everything he could to ensure that he won a contest in which staying within an “ungodly” budget (“$24,420,000 to the penny,” Graves remembered in a 2008 lecture) was a top requirement. He made the windows small because that was what the energy conservation rules of the day dictated. He flattened his cherished architectural ornament so it would cost less and wouldn’t interfere with the window washing rig. And, last October, when all that he had done in the name of economy and efficiency—and all of the corners that were subsequently cut by the contractors—conspired to turn the birthplace of the postmodern movement into a white elephant that local politicians were threatening to demolish, Graves returned to Portland to defend his creation. Despite all of its acknowledged flaws, he was thrilled to revisit it: “It was shimmering,” he told a local audience. “It was so uplifting.”
3. The Target Line
“The way I would see it, he became a pop culture figure because of the work with Alessi and Target,” Glenn Adamson, director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, recently told me. In my estimation, Graves' Target work was more significant than what he did for Alessi. It represented better design and reached way more people. The idea was born when Ron Johnson, then vice president of merchandising for Target, began asking himself: “Why does good design have to be so expensive?” In 1999, Johnson launched a line of Graves-designed housewares, initially consisting of 140 items. I immediately drove to a suburban Target and stocked up on kitchen goods. My best loved of the Graves merchandise was—and still is—a set of nesting mixing bowls. They are vaguely zoomorphic, with chubby bodies standing on a quartet of squat little legs. Unlike that famous tea kettle (with the whistling birdie), these bowls are not so very precious. Instead, they strike a difficult-to-achieve balance, both wonderfully functional and unabashedly cute.
4. The Wounded Warrior Homes
Michael Graves & Associates collaborated with IDEO to design two prototype homes for wounded active duty soldiers at Fort Belvoir, Va. Completed in 2011, these houses have innovative features such as closets designed specifically for charging wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs, and front doors that open with a RFID chip, eliminating the need to handle a key. Of course, Graves, who was confined to a wheelchair in 2003 after a spinal cord infection left him partially paralyzed, had particular insight into the needs of the wounded. “It's so nice to be able to turn a corner in a wheelchair,” he said in a video explaining the houses. “People don’t realize.” But even more impressive is an architectural approach—daylight-flooded rooms, broad corridors, and generous kitchen and bath layouts—that would make these designs comfortable for just about anyone. The Patriot Home, in particular, with its three gabled volumes, is an exemplary marriage of Graves’ highly refined architectural ideas and the traditional American single-family home.