The legacy of Michael Graves’s joy through superior design

Design, with a purpose.
Design, with a purpose.
Image: AP Photo/Mel Evans
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Visit the website of designer Michael Graves, and you’ll be greeted with the words Humanistic Design = Transformative Results. The mantra can double as Graves’ philosophy. For Graves—who died at 80 in March—paid no heed to architectural trends, social movements or the words of his critics. Instead, it was the everyday human being—the individual—who inspired and informed his work.

During a career that spanned over 50 years, Graves held firm to the belief that design could effect tremendous change in people’s day-to-day lives. From small-scale kitchen products to immense buildings, a thread runs throughout his products: accessible, aesthetic forms that possess a sense of warmth and appeal.

Early in his career, Graves was identified as one of the New York Five, a group of influential architects who whole-heartedly embraced Modernism, the architectural movement that subscribed to the use of simple, clean lines, forms devoid of embellishments and modern materials such as steel and glass.

However, Graves is best described as a Post-Modernist. He eschewed the austerity of Modernism and its belief that “less is more,” instead embracing history and references to the past. He rejected the notion that decoration, or ornament, was a “crime” (as Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote in 1908); rather, he viewed it as a way for his architecture to convey meaning.

As the noted architectural historian Spiro Kostof explains in his book A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, “Post Modernists turn to historical memory…to ornament, as a way of enriching the language of architecture.”

Kostof continues by postulating that this form is attractive to the general public because its qualities—such as the use of vibrant colors—are visually appealing. To appreciate the structures, viewers don’t need to be well-read or understand the “true meaning” of the architectural gestures used.

Along these lines, Graves loathed the idea of intellectualizing his structures. Instead, he sought to make them accessible, understandable, and poignant to all passersby. In buildings like Disney’s Michael D. Eisner Building and the St. Coletta School in Washington, DC, we see how he operated. Rather than using graceful caryatids to support the roof, Graves has the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White happily supporting the triangular pediment of the structure.

seven dwarfs in pediment
The Seven Dwarfs appear to literally hold up the roof of the Michael D. Eisner Building.
Image: Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

For the St. Coletta School, Graves employed vibrant colors, various roof lines and striking shapes to create a total of five different and distinct “houses” for the building. But it all serves a purpose: to help the building’s students—children with severe mental disabilities—easily navigate and identify the various sections of the school.

coletta school
Graves divided the St. Coletta School into five ‘houses,’ each with its own unique elements.
Image: NCinDC/Flickr, CC BY-ND

In addition to designing buildings, Graves embarked upon a long and highly successful partnership with the Italian kitchenware company Alessi, which made sleek household items such as bowls and metallic coffee pots. Graves’ most famous Alessi design is his iconic teakettle (formally known as the 9093 kettle), which had a cheerful red whistling bird and sky-blue handle. On sale since 1985, the best-selling product is still in production today.

Graves’ iconic 9093 kettle for Alessi.
Graves’ iconic 9093 kettle for Alessi.
Image: Didriks/Flickr, CC BY

In 1999, Minneapolis-based discount retail giant Target approached Graves with an offer to design a line of kitchen products, ranging from toasters to spatulas.

While some might have shied away from having their work associated with a mega-corporation like Target, Graves wholly embraced the project. To him, the end result was all that mattered: he believed that producing affordable, well designed everyday items would make people happy. And Target would simply give him a platform to accomplish this.

In all, Graves collaboration with Target would last 13 years; during this time, the designer would become a household name, with millions of units of his products appearing in American homes.

toaster target
Michael Graves’ toaster for Target: unique, affordable and visually pleasing.
Image: Wally Gobetz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Many of Graves’ designs for Target—his spatula, can opener, and ice cream scoop—had chunky, sky-blue handles. Other appliances that were white (such as his toaster and electric hand mixer) were sprinkled with touches of color—a bit of yellow or red or blue to make the appliances pop out. Black and beige had no place in Graves’ palette.

The option to select a better-looking product with a slightly higher price versus the same article but with a less expensive, nondescript appearance is now the norm for most consumers: good design (and function) are part and parcel of the customer experience (nowhere is this more evident than in Apple’s rise to dizzying heights as arguably one of the world’s most valuable brands).

It’s an idea that’s democratic in nature, and thinking about design through this lens led Graves to create thoughtful, appealing and affordable products for the masses. Other designers, most notably Charles and Ray Eames—with their iconic mid-century molded plywood chairs—also subscribed to this mindset. (“We wanted to make the best for the most for the least,” the husband and wife duo once said.)

As Graves’ popularity rose, his critics leveled blistering commentaries about what they deemed a precipitous fall from grace—from a “trend beyond compare” to a “stale trend,” as architecture critic Herbert Muschamp noted in a 1999 New York Times article. The notion that he had commodified design—and had somehow “cheapened” it—drew the disdain of those who once lauded his works.

Yet Graves remained true to his beliefs even into the last phase of his life. In 2003, after an illness left him paralyzed below the waist, he realized that the design of hospitals and equipment used by patients, doctors, and nurses could be redesigned and made more functional, comfortable and visually appealing. He then went on to improve ubiquitous devices such as wheelchairs and walking canes.

walking sticks
Towards the end of his life, Graves was inspired to improve upon existing products for the physically impaired, like walking canes.
Image: Wally Gobetz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Consumers may not have ever known his architecture or what the critics thought of his work (or even realized they were buying one of his products). Graves didn’t seem to mind. His goal was to provide well-designed items for everyday use rather than impress his detractors.

As he told NPR in 2002, “It’s the kind of thing where you pick something up or use it with a little bit of joy…it puts a smile on your face.”