The visionary behind monumental hotels and iconic teapots talks about democratic design and the things that embody it.
Calling Michael Graves merely an architect is clearly too limiting. Yes, he is known for neoclassical works like the Humana building in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Art Deco-inspired Swan and Dolphin hotels in Disney World. But he has also created memorable modern designs for the kitchen. His whimsical Alessi teakettle with its whistling-bird spout was the '80s stovetop accessory. And Graves became a household name when he started designing gadgets and appliances for Target. Here Graves tells F&W about some of his principles and the things that best embody them.
"Every kitchen needs good stools for friends to sit on while you're making drinks or cooking," Graves says. He has inexpensive three-legged Ringo barstools from Ikea in his Princeton, New Jersey, kitchen. The height is adjustable by spinning the seat up or down ($15; 800-434-IKEA).
Graves thinks many fixtures today are overstylized: "So many clients want tarted-up modern pulls that scream 'Design' with a capital D." In a building Graves is working on in Manhattan now, he's using Merit "Bin Pull" chrome-plated brass reproductions that look like they're from the 1920s ($13; 800-950-1047).
Graves says he started collaborating with Target in part to help make good design affordable. It used to be very difficult to find inexpensive items with a bit of an edge in stores, Graves says. "Now you look at Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn and the stuff is excellent. If you want the best suit, you may still go to Armani. But if you want great blue jeans, you go to the Gap--and that comparison applies to kitchenware as well."
Graves installs glass-fronted cabinets in every kitchen--a trick he learned from nineteenth-century German and Austrian Landhausen (country houses). "These kitchens are almost unknown to Americans, but they're spectacular," he says. "The rooms look much bigger than they are--brighter and more inviting--because the cabinets create the impression of interior windows." He uses translucent glass "so people can't see the Cheerios boxes inside."
Graves likes patterns on plates, tiles and area rugs, like the carpet he designed in his breakfast room. He was inspired by Deanery Garden, which was created by Gertrude Jekyll, a nineteenth-century English landscape designer, and the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. "Patterns on ceramics or fabrics are metaphors for eating outside, for light, for natural conditions," Graves says. "It's more of a problem when it's an imitation of nature." A pet peeve about tiles: Graves thinks many have inferior patterns. "Retailers don't get the best people to design tiles and have made them into trend objects," he says. "In one year, out the next--just to get people to buy new ones."
Out of the 800 items Graves has created for Target so far, the one he uses the most is the simple white toaster ($30; 800-800-8800): "It reminds me of the toaster I grew up with in my parents' house, a great old chrome Sunbeam that wasn't overly embellished. You knew what it was just by looking at it." Graves has just made another toaster for Target, this one in black with a special bagel setting ($35).
Influence of Antiquity
Graves says seeing the ruins of Pompeii made him realize kitchens haven't changed that much. "The people of Pompeii bought food on the street, and stores had stoves in the shop front," Graves says. "That's not so different from how people live today. We often overlook similarities because we're so busy looking for differences."
Graves believes in having large kitchen windows for natural light during the day and using incandescent bulbs, which won't distort colors, at night. "I don't mind being able to see the fixture as long as it's not overdesigned," Graves says. A favorite: the "Torino," made of white opal glass in a brass fitting, which he created for Baldinger Architectural Lighting ($435; 212-832-2219).
The Alessi Whistling Kettle is the most popular of all the products he has designed: Two million have been sold so far, "which is a lot, considering it's over a hundred dollars," Graves says. He suspects that it has such appeal because it harks back to American kitchens of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when kitschy styles were popular. ($135; 212-431-1310).
"Too many people shy away from marble countertops because marble stains," Graves observes, "but I say, Who cares? White marble looks great." He also puts concrete floors in kitchens: "I don't find it to be hard on shins."
Graves keeps fresh fruit in red wooden Chinese bowls in his kitchen to recapture a special moment: "I remember walking into an antiques store in Rome once, and the owner had a wonderful fire going and a huge bowl of apples. It was as if someone had opened a keg of cider. The aroma was like Thanksgiving. You never wanted to leave."
One item Graves feels he could never improve on is a 1934 potato masher--just bent wire with a wooden handle--that he found at a flea market: "It's like redesigning the paper clip--what are you going to do to it?"
Josef Hoffman, part of the early-twentieth-century German movement Weiner Werkstätte, was a strong influence on Graves's kitchen designs: "His kitchens were hygienic without being sterile, with high ceilings and great light." Graves also owns a set of the "Rundes Modell" flatware that Hoffman designed. Alessi has just reissued reproductions ($100 for a six-piece place setting; 212-431-1310).