A 1993 billboard shows Michael Graves at the height of his commercial success.
Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design A 1993 billboard shows Michael Graves at the height of his commercial success.

A series of interviews with Michael Graves for an undefined memoir project became, after the architect’s death in 2015, the basis for a new biography: Michael Graves: Design for Life (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017). In the book, author and ARCHITECT contributing editor Ian Volner chronicles the personal and professional life of the famed postmodernist. For ARCHITECT, Volner identified three pivotal moments, excerpted below, that show the influences that shaped Graves’ career and singular style.

Graves, 12, in a toy car he kept into adulthood.
Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design Graves, 12, in a toy car he kept into adulthood.

Choosing Architecture
[T]here was only one thing, from as early as he or anyone who knew him in Broad Ripple Village could recall, that Michael was absolutely certain he wanted to do. It was by no means something that seemed likely, in itself, to satisfy his mother’s strict, utilitarian standard. But it was something he felt compelled to do: he wanted to draw.

Sitting by the window, Erma would look out in muted bemusement as the eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old Michael wandered through the front and back yards and along the sidewalk, drawing everything in sight. Indianola Avenue was lined with tall maples and oaks; overhead the power lines stretched from post to post, bowing deeply in between, and the houses, seen obliquely, produced a muddle of overlaid figures trooping one after another as far as the banks of the White River. Michael took it down as best he could with the pencils and loose-leaf paper his mother allowed him to keep. She could tell he had promise, but the situation was not to her liking. Tom excelled at math and science; why couldn’t Michael be more like his older brother?

Besides the notebooks, the only real indulgence of Michael’s artistic talent that Erma ever permitted was during a single summer when he was a child, when she signed him up for a painting class at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It lasted one afternoon, and its sole product was a painting of a papier-mâché tiger that Michael had seen in the museum’s collection. Years later Ada Louise Huxtable—the New York Times’s first architecture critic (and still the most powerful one in its history)—asked him about his “artistic education,” and he mentioned briefly this one-day intensive seminar in Indianapolis. Huxtable, apparently deeming this a sufficient pedigree, went on to claim in print that Michael Graves was “a painter before he was an architect.” No copy of the painting exists to vouch for Michael’s early academic bona fides.

The tiger, however, was all Erma was prepared to tolerate. One day, not long thereafter, she made her feelings plain to her younger son.

“I’m tired of you telling all my friends that you’re going to be an artist,” he remembered her saying. “Unless you’re as good as Picasso, you’ll starve. What you should do is find a life’s work that uses art, but that’s a real profession.”

“Like what?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know. Like engineering, or architecture.”

Unfamiliar with either trade, Michael asked first what engineers do. Erma explained in a hazy way the process of preparing schematic drawings, resolving the technical problems of construction, figuring out how to make buildings stand up, and so forth.

It sounded complicated. “Alright then,” said Michael. “I’ll be an architect.”

“But,” Erma pointed out, “I haven’t told you what an architect does yet.”

Michael said he didn’t need to know; he just knew he didn’t want to be an engineer. If he was not to be an artist, he would settle for being an architect.

And that was that.

A model of Graves’ undergraduate thesis, “Amenable House.”
Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design A model of Graves’ undergraduate thesis, “Amenable House.”

Studying at Harvard Graduate School of Design
Owing to his six-year-long spell as an undergraduate, Michael was allowed by GSD to compress the usually eight-term master of architecture program into a single year. His longer-than-usual college experience also meant that Michael was older than most of the new students at GSD, save for those who had not failed their fitness exams and had been conscripted into the military. Many of the students in his own year were products of Cambridge itself, having gone through Harvard’s own undergraduate program, and several shared a scrap of advice with their new classmate, a message that distilled (at least in Michael’s memory) to a simple warning:

“This is bullshit.”

In his adult career, Michael never bore Cincinnati any ill will, even coming back decades later to design a building for his alma mater. He felt nothing but gratitude for Carl Strauss and an immense affection for Ray Roush. But for GSD, and for Harvard in general, he carried a flame of contempt so bright and so assiduously maintained over the years that it must have been a source of authentic pleasure.

At the University of Cincinnati, though some of his teachers had been products of GSD, theirs had been a different GSD—back when Walter Gropius was at the helm. [… B]ut Hudnut, Breuer, and Gropius were all long gone by the time Michael arrived in Cambridge. Dean Josep Lluís Sert was now in charge. Barcelonan by birth, living in exile in the United States since the end of the Spanish Civil War, Sert was a true believer in a specific genre of architectural Modernism, and he imposed his preferences upon faculty and students alike with a force that belied his remarkably short stature. Behind his back, Michael and his friends referred to him as “the Teeny-Weeny Deany.”

Within the limited menu of Modernism then available in the United States, there were a still a few selections on offer. Miesian Modernism Michael had already learned at the University of Cincinnati; thanks to Roush, he could also bring in a bit of Breuer to add a homey touch. At Harvard, on the other hand, all this was in poor taste. As his classmates told him, “You better do Corb.”

Michael had seen enough of Le Corbusier’s work in college to know what that meant. Favoring white exteriors with occasional washes of color within and asymmetrical massing of pure geometries in artful juxtapositions, Le Corbusier’s was a looser, more self-consciously poetic approach than that of either the stringent Mies or the humbly antimonumental Breuer. Unafraid of a certain quantum of symbolic resonance, Corb’s definition of architecture as “the masterful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light” wasn’t quite in tune with the more functionally inclined Gropius, either. Sert’s importation of the Corbusian strain signaled a changing of the guard at GSD. […]

“One of the strongest proponents of the Mediterranean mentality,” as the eminent historian Sigfried Giedion called him, Sert was in many ways a superlative designer. His own country home on Long Island included an astonishingly beautiful lofted living room with a herringbone brick floor—“a town square in Catalonia,” as the artist Saul Steinberg once described it. He had been a champion of the Republican cause in his home country and a fearless opponent of Fascism everywhere—despite the pro–Francisco Franco sympathies of his famous painter uncle Josep Maria Sert. But Sert could also be philosophically straightjacketed, and he could be a bully.

A mutual antagonism between him and the new midwestern transplant took hold early. In his first semester, as Michael recalled, students were tasked with designing a museum; for the interior sections, Michael drew wooden walls with a texture indistinguishable from maple, while in his bird’s-eye plan of the building’s front terrace he rendered a brick patio in such minute detail that every individual brick was outlined. He had done it, in truth, because he could—a bit of shameless, if harmless, showboating. If Sert liked bricks, Michael would give him bricks.

At the end-of-term charrette, when the students presented their work, Sert made his way around to Michael’s station. Before he launched into his critique, the dean leaned in to examine the drawings Michael had so carefully prepared, and without saying a word he started scratching them vigorously with his forefinger. “He was thinking it was some film I’d put down,” Michael remembered. Sert believed the detail was fake, a decal applied to the paper. Far from impressing him, Michael’s facility had merely aroused Sert’s suspicion, and suspicion swiftly escalated into hostility. […]

Michael recalled how once, early in his first semester in Cambridge, he had been sitting with a book open to an image of the Palais Garnier, the Paris opera house completed in 1875 and known to the world by the name of its architect, Charles Garnier. The building, its extravagant front foyer graced by a richly ornamented, delicately contoured grand staircase, was a high point of Second Empire design, an impressive if slightly gaudy instance of the French Beaux Arts style. Sert walked into the room and approached him.

“What are you looking at?” he asked.

Michael showed him.

“You won’t need that here,” Sert said, and snapped the book closed. Art history belonged to the art historians; GSD students were to keep their heads down and deal with the real, the here and the now. […]

In his second semester, Michael took a studio with the dean himself. At the time, Sert was becoming interested in new techniques in concrete construction; a decade later, he’d deploy an inventive semitubular system for the roof of his Fundació Joan Miró, the museum in Barcelona built and named in honor of the painter who had been Sert’s friend since the early 1930s. To acquaint his students with the process of mixing and molding in cement and aggregate, the dean sent Michael and a couple of other students down to the school workshop, charging them with making some concrete and pouring it into inverted forms like those Sert would later use for his museum.

“I thought, my god,” Michael said, “I’ve been on construction sites all my life, for six years. I don’t want to do this.” Finding that some of his colleagues felt the same, Michael proceeded to lead a small mutiny. The group demanded another, less menial assignment, and though their insubordination must have galled him, Sert finally conceded. They could design a house, he told them, provided that it too used inverted concrete shells. They accepted.

But Michael’s budding interest in the history of art wormed in, and once again he and Sert were at loggerheads. In conceiving his house, Michael did exactly as he knew Sert would want him to, devising an asymmetrical plan, as in a Le Corbusier house, and giving the exterior walls a slight sculptural wave in deference to Sert’s repeated exhortations to “animate the facade! Animate the facade!” But Michael added one tiny detail that spoiled the whole effect.

On a long wall in one of the perspective drawings of the house’s interior, he pasted a photo of a painting that he’d cut out of a magazine. (He might as easily have drawn a sketch of it, but he’d learned that that would avail him nothing with the dean.) The painting, Michael recalled, was the work of Nicolas Poussin, the early nineteenth-century French artist who had forged the bridge between the baroque and the classical in French art. The piece was one of his enchantingly enigmatic landscapes: tunic-bedecked shepherds and tall cypresses under a cobalt-blue sky. It was not, in other words, anything like the work of Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, or the other contemporary artists Sert favored.

Michael remembered watching Sert as he first espied the painting in the interior and then abruptly launched into a stream of richly accented invective. “I’ve spent my entire life getting rid of that shit,” Sert exclaimed, “and you bring this into my school willy-nilly!”

But the student pleaded his innocence. “I didn’t do it,” Michael told him. “The painting is in the collection of my client.”

As Michael related, the Fictional Client Defense only fanned the flames of Sert’s anger. He threatened to flunk Michael for the course and was dissuaded only when a sympathetic faculty member […] persuaded him to fail the student for the project but pass him for the semester as a whole.

Graves' Claghorn House, completed in 1977.
Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design Graves' Claghorn House, completed in 1977.

When Graves Became Graves
Days after arriving in Princeton from MIT in 1977, newly minted firm associate Karen Nichols (then Karen Wheeler) went with Michael to see the just-finished Claghorn House as it was being set for a shoot by the architectural photographer Yukio Futagawa. As they walked through the house, Michael showed Nichols how the design had come together—how it functioned as a Cubist assemblage, how its quotidian materials resonated with ideas of place and entry, of the private and the public spheres.

Nichols […] didn’t get it.

Finally, Michael took her by the shoulders and stood her square in front of the terrace, aiming her directly at the latticed facade of the terrace wall. “Can’t you see it?” he said.

“See what?”

“There’s a picture plane!”

He then proceeded to show her how the puzzle fit together: how the diagonal cutaway of the lattice shaped the space before it; how the lattice blended with the big post-and-beam structure to create the appearance of a trellis; how the trellis, the horizontal courses, and the doorjamb all framed the kitchen, pointing the way toward the entrance. It was all perfectly clear, Michael insisted, once you looked at it the right way, as a frontal tableau.

All at once, it clicked. “Before that,” recalled Nichols, “I had understood it in three dimensions.” […]

Michael’s design process during these years began to place more and more emphasis on elevations. In good Corbusian fashion, he had usually begun with the plan—a more than adequate template for his painterly skills, Corb himself having proven their compositional potential. But as Michael wrote at the time: Plan is seen as a conceptual tool, a two-dimensional diagram or notational device with limited capacity to express the perceptual elements. … Plans are experienced only in perspective as opposed to the vertical surfaces of a building which are perceived in a frontal manner.

No one, in other words, can appreciate the artistic merit of a plan except insofar as the elevation bears it out. Floors are mute. Walls can speak.

With elevations taking center stage, Michael began to rely heavily on large format yellow tracing paper to render them. Painting, which he continued to do off and on, was never used as a medium for developing specific designs, though his artistic work always took place in parallel with his architectural activity. (“I use the same formal ensemble of objects in my paintings that I use in my architecture,” he put it.) Likewise his habit of creating what he termed “referential sketches”: scribbled in small notebooks, sometimes on loose pieces of paper, often in the margins of larger drawings or even next to student work, these were strictly mental musings, intended as his visual “diary,” as he described it. They would serve as background material for “preparatory” and finally “definitive” drawings, where facade treatments could be worked out at length in the open space of the large yellow sheets, to be handed off later to his associates for detailing and coloring and then returned to him.

Such would remain the standard procedure at Michael Graves Architect for decades. But during this pivotal stage in his career—the moment, it might be said, when Michael Graves became Michael Graves—there was a special importance to his private sketching and painting.

A set of maroon-bound sketchbooks, kept by Michael over an approximately seven-year timeframe starting in 1975, affords a unique glimpse into his design approach as it was then evolving. Different versions and views of both the Schulman and Crooks fireplaces turn up in these pages, alongside countless other “referential” caprices floating through his architectural subconscious: churches and landscapes, some recalled from his time in Europe; drawings of John Hejduk’s “Wall House” proposals; images culled from books of architectural history, including a phantasmagorical temple by the eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Jacques Lequeu; and a remarkable quantity of interior fixtures, sconces, chairs, and other details, some of them ones he was considering for purchase whenever (or if ever) he had the money. Of his day-to-day life he sketched nothing, except once—a tiny, exquisite portrait, marked “ESLG,” which he dashed off on a visit to Indianapolis. It is the only known picture he ever drew of his mother, Erma, and one of very few images he ever created of any family member. […]

This artistic insight had been acting on Michael’s mind for some time, and his architectural production had always had a compressive quality [… b]ut what he had discovered at Claghorn was that basic functional accommodations were better handled by a plain box. That left him free to make his exteriors more like two-dimensional projections: a convenient solution, since that was more or less how he’d always seen buildings to begin with.

Here the matter of Michael’s ocular defect is impossible to ignore. “I thought for years that he didn’t see the way other people did,” said Karen Nichols, who went on to spend the next four decades (and counting) with the firm. As she witnessed at Claghorn in the very beginning, Michael could discern continuities—between, for example, a structure that sat in front of a wall and the wall itself—that were all but invisible even to trained architects. Frustrated, and more eager than ever to make himself understood, Michael’s response was to make his work even flatter, eliminating the likelihood of misinterpretation by doing in two dimensions what he had nominally done in three. To his mind and, more importantly, to his eye, nothing would be lost in this translation. Just as his strabismus collapsed spatial arrangements into planar ones, he could sense a dynamism in planar surfaces that most viewers would experience only in perceiving and moving through space. Of course, this is as much to say that what made Michael able to see things other people couldn’t also made him unable to see things other people could.