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Michael Graves

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Michael Graves

Good Design for the Quality of Everyday Life

Interview by Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie

Identified as one of the New York Five, Michael Graves is an American architect known for his contemporary building designs as well as his domestic products for such companies as Target, J.C. Penney, Disney, Philips and Black & Decker. Born in Indianapolis, he earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University and is the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus at Princeton University. His firm, Michael Graves & Associates, has offices in Princeton, New Jersey and New York City. Graves was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council. He has received numerous awards including the National Medal of Arts, the AIA Gold Medal, the AIA Topaz Medal and the Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. He is credited with broadening the role of the architect in society and raising public interest in good design as essential to the quality of everyday life.

TJ: Can you tell us how you got started in your career?
GRAVES: As a very young boy, I decided I wanted to become an architect. The only thing I could do well as a kid was draw. My mother was worried because I had told her friends I was going to be a painter and she said it would be better if I was part of a profession that used drawing. She said architecture does that. So once she explained what architecture was, I was hooked.

TJ: Is there someone that had a major influence on you?
GRAVES: No, there never was. Just architecture itself. I never had a mentor. I had some older people that I worked with that were slightly influential but not in any way a mentor

TJ: Were you influenced more by American architecture than international architecture?
GRAVES: Well, as a kid I was because that is all I knew. I didn’t know anything about Palladio or any of those people until I got to college.

TJ: How about as an adult? After you got started in your career was your work influenced by international architecture in any way?
GRAVES: Well, I was influenced by history. I wasn’t influenced by modern architecture at all, but I was influenced by history. I went to Rome for two years with the American Academy. I started to understand the narrative in architecture and I was pretty much a student of the antique.

TJ: Is there a particular architect you admire these days?
GRAVES: I admire Aldo Rossi, who passed away. I admire Léon Krier, but not many.

TJ: Are you familiar with Japanese architects?
GRAVES: Yes, but the beginning points are so different. I believe in humanism and Japanese architects like Ito and Ando are abstractionists. They are very, very different. It’s like the difference between law and medicine. There is a world of difference between what Japanese architects do and what I do.

TJ: I understand you’ve had success with your teakettle.
GRAVES: Well, I guess. The Bells and Whistles Tea Kettle sold two million. That’s pretty good success.

TJ: Where was the inspiration for the design?
GRAVES: My head. They wanted a teakettle that reflected Americanism and I couldn’t give them that. They wanted a teakettle that had no flaws in it, nothing that would go wrong. They had a couple of teakettles – one by Richard Sapper and one by Aldo Rossi, and both of them had minor functional flaws. They also wanted water to boil faster than any other kettle.

TJ:What is your proudest achievement? Is there one in particular?
GRAVES: No. I love them all.

TJ: Do you revisit your work often?
GRAVES: When I can, but my work is everywhere. I’ve done a lot of work in Japan, but I haven’t seen it since it was built.

TJ: Have you been to Japan?
GRAVES: I’ve been to Japan 103 times but I haven’t been back since I was paralyzed about 10 years ago. I would go back to build something but I wouldn’t go back to look at my work.

TJ: What country are you interested in seeing the kind of building that is going on? China?
GRAVES: I’m interested in Italy. China is building American architecture. Why would I be interested in that?

TJ: So Italy is where the creativity is?
GRAVES: Yes.

TJ: Are you involved in education?
GRAVES: I taught at Princeton for 39 years. I’m teaching now at the University of Miami periodically. I’m going to Rome this fall to teach in their Rome program – Miami and Notre Dame.

TJ: I understand you’ve had success with your teakettle.
GRAVES: Well, I guess. The Bells and Whistles Tea Kettle sold two million. That’s pretty good success.

TJ: Does your mood greatly influence your work?
GRAVES: No. I’m pretty even. My mood doesn’t go up or down much. It goes down a little bit when I don’t get work, but generally it’s not an up and down thing.

TJ: So you’ve been pretty consistent over the years.
GRAVES: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question before, but yes, I think I’ve been pretty consistent.

TJ: Do you work with a lot of other architects on your work or do you work alone?
GRAVES: I have an office of about 50 people. Some of those people are in product design and some of those people are in architecture.

TJ: Are you good at working with people?
GRAVES: I love working by myself and I love working with people.

TJ: Is there something you really want to do?
GRAVES: Yes, the next one.

TJ: Is that what drives you – the desire to create?
GRAVES: It’s not a drive like that. I just like working. I like making things. I like drawings. It’s what I do and what I love doing.

TJ: How many projects do you work on simultaneously?
GRAVES: As many as there are in the office. I have three design studios for architecture and each of those studios have buildings they are working on. I work with the principal in charge of each one of those and then I work with the principals in charge of product design. To have an office like mine you’ve got to work with other people.

TJ: You’re like a conductor of an orchestra of people?
GRAVES: Well, I don’t think there are many architects who work solo. Certainly they could do that if they had small houses to do. But there are so many people involved in our affair. We’ve got civil engineers. We’ve got structural engineers. We’ve got mechanical engineers. We’ve got land surveyors. They are all part of the team.

TJ: You’ve designed products for all kinds of large companies like Target, Disney, Philips, etc. Do you take on very small projects for small companies as well?
GRAVES: We do. We’ve got some very small ones.

TJ: Can you give an example?
GRAVES: We just finished some tweezers for a cosmetics company. That’s pretty small.

TJ: Did they have a pretty unique design?
GRAVES: Of course they did. And they work brilliantly.


TJ: What is your favorite part: architecture, interior design, or…?
GRAVES: I’m going to be very boring here: I like it all! I like drawing and making things. It doesn’t matter if it’s inside the building or outside the building.


TJ: What kind of buildings did you do in Japan?
GRAVES: Mostly office buildings and housing towers. I did a city hall. I did a research center. At one point I was working for a developer. They would send me drawings of the site from the engineers and a structural
system and we worked within that. They knew what they wanted in terms of how little money they were going to spend on a particular structural system.

TJ: Which city hall did you build in Japan?
GRAVES: Onjuku Town Hall in Chiba.


TJ: When was your f irst visit?
GRAVES: About 25 years ago.


TJ: Do you enjoy visiting Japan?
GRAVES: I love it. I have lots of friends there. In fact, one of them just wrote to me asking if I would do a very small project for him. He wanted me to design towels for, I think, Isetan.


TJ: So you’d go back to Japan given the right circumstances?
GRAVES: Oh, sure. I’d go back to Japan at the drop of a hat. But it does mean going back for some purpose, like meeting with a client.


TJ: Do you think Tokyo would be a good host city for the 2020 Olympics?
GRAVES: Yes. They can do what they say they will set out to do. If the government says they can get the infrastructure done, they’ll get it done. I’m not aware of a lot of corruption in Japan.

TJ: Is there a particular area of Japan you prefer over others?
GRAVES: I spent a lot of time in Roppongi and at the time I was there I was a friend of Issey Miyake, but I haven’t seen him for years. When I was there we had friends in common.


TJ: Do you still work with Target?
GRAVES: We ended our time with Target. Now we’ve got our shops inside J.C. Penny department stores. We’re inside 700 stores now. Before, we designed a teakettle for Target, we were in the kettle aisle. And then we designed a toaster, so we were in the toaster aisle. But at J.C. Penny all our things are together.


TJ: From a business standpoint, what is more profitable: interior design or general architecture?
GRAVES: I don’t think there’s a big difference, actually. If you do a big building, you generally make a little more by doing architecture than interiors, but not a whole lot.


TJ: Can you give any advice to young architects just starting out in their careers?
GRAVES: My advice is always the same, which is read as much as you can, and draw as much as you can. When you’re finished drawing, start reading again, but they really need to know what architecture is through
the literature. They need to know all the architects from the Renaissance, what they were doing, why they were doing it, and why they were successful doing it. And then they need to draw, draw, draw.


TJ: Why do they need to know that?
GRAVES: Because it helps to teach them humanism. If I looked at an Ando building, I couldn’t find the front door. I think that’s sad. It’s an abstraction. He cares more about what the concrete in his concrete building is like than what my life in it is like. So that’s why I say we do very different things, like most Japanese architects.


TJ: Thank you very much for your time! tj

The original article appeared in Tokyo Journal Issue #272. Click here to order from Amazon

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