Michael Graves, born the summer or 1934 in Indianapolis, knew he wanted to be an artist by the age of six. Encouraged by his mother to seek a more practical career, Graves choose architecture. After studying at the University of Connecticut, he got his master’s degree at Harvard University. After finishing school in 1959, he moved to New York City where he worked at the office of George Nelson. While working in New York, Graves received a fellowship to study at American Academy in Rome, Italy. Graves studied the classical architecture, which inspires much of his work. It was his time in Rome that allowed him to make the connection between ancient and modern architecture.
In 1962, Graves started teaching architecture at Princeton University. He designed buildings upon commission, but not until 1977 did his work become nationally know. Graves received a commission for a cultural center spanning the Red River on the Minnesota/North Dakota border. Although lack of funding never allowed his design to be built, he gained a lot of attention. Graves’ next project, the Portland Building, is a fifteen story postmodernist skyscraper. It can be defined this way because of its unusual use of color. There is also a reference to Greek columns on the facade of the building.
As more commissions followed, Graves began his own design studio in Princeton. As a privileged member of the designers at this studio, I can witness the process of Graves’ design. His firm is split into teams of designers. There are the interior and architectural designers in one building and the industrial designers in a separate studio. Michael and the team leaders primarily plan each project out. The teams then develop the project. Computer drawings are then sent to the modelers and painters. The atmosphere at the Graves studio is extremely laid back, but professional. For example there are several dogs roaming around the studios, but the conference rooms double as display rooms for Michael’s previous projects and libraries.
There are several reasons why Michael Graves is considered a post-modernist. The typical modernist based their designs on structure and technology and used plain surfaces such as glass and steel. Graves’ designs are decorative and use natural materials. The colors used for most of Graves’ designs are gray, soft blues, green stucco, and terra cotta. These colors add human qualities to the design. In an essay by Ivan Zurich, the classification of Graves’ design is discussed. Is Graves a modern architect, a post-modern, a late modern, an eclectic, or a classicist? He would answer: I am just an architect. ‘I don’t care what people call me,’ he says in response to the publicity; ‘labels have the negative value of making smaller boundaries for people.’
The Team Disney Building is Burbank, California was built in 1991 as Graves’ first project for Disney. One face of the building uses seven 19-foot dwarfs as columns. These characters from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs reference Greek columns in a playful manner. This side also has a pediment structure. The roof on the opposing side of the building has semicircular arches. These may be referencing gothic vaulted ceilings. The large glass plain walls of the building are typical modernist design, but they are colored terra cotta.
The Engineering research Center at the University of Cincinnati was completed in 1995. At first observation, this building seems to be four separate rectangular buildings connected perpendicularly by a structure with a semicircular roof. The four extruding buildings have many rectangular features. The setback connecting structure has circular windows. These few circular elements make the building less like a modernist box. The main entrance building has columns which reference Greek architecture.
The most recent nationally acclaimed design by Graves is the scaffolding on the Washington Monument. The scaffolding contains 37 miles of aluminum that drape over the obelisk. Standing 575 feet tall, Graves uses nylon fabric and 800 lights to illuminate the monument at night. The original purpose of the scaffolding was to aid workers as they repaired and cleaned the national monument, but it has become an artwork in itself. There is currently a bidding war over the deconstructed scaffolding to have it resurrected as a separate structure. This work is a perfect example of architectural reaction to society. This classical obelisk has become deteriorated by pollution and weather, which commissioned the scaffolding. Graves uses the shape of the original gray masonry and creates a web around it that is aesthetically pleasing and humane. The blue glow gives the linear building a softer quality. Graves mimics the block pattern of the masonry in the structure.
Michael Graves has expanded his design expertise from primarily architecture, to products, interiors, and even graphic design. Graves began working with Alessi, a design company primarily concerned with house-ware art, in the early 1980’s. Graves uses many references to classical architecture in his product designs. Many of his vases and candleholders resemble columns. Graves has a line of yellow dinnerware decorated with blue flowers. This graphic element could be referencing the flower motifs of Art Nouveau. Another kitchenware line by graves uses rings of steel and small dots resembling rivets. This line could be referencing Russian Constructivism because it looks like the steel beams of an architectural structure. Graves adds blue handles to soften the metal.
Graves recently made a deal with Target to sell his designs at reasonable prices to the public. This is definitely an action of a post-modernist, because he is trying to allow everyone to have nice objects in their home. Some of the designs resemble the Alessi product line, but with less definition and less expensive molded parts. Among these is the Graves toaster. The bubble-like design references the Braun products of the 1950’s. Graves adds a playful blue handle and stubby yellow feet. This toaster looks like a cartoon on a kitchen counter.
From my internship with Graves Design I learned about one of Michael’s designs that is relatively unknown to the public. Michael designed the logo for Lenox. His connections with Disney, Lenox, Princeton University, Alessi, (to name a few) have made Michael Graves an internationally acclaimed post-modernist designer.
Alessi, Alberto. The Dream Factory. Cologne: Konemann, 1998.
Canupp, Shelley. Cheap Chic. Press Journal 8 Apr. 2000, sec C:2.
Kudalis, Eric Michael Graves, Minneapolis: Capstone Press, 1996.
Trachtenberg, Marvin, Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: From Prehistory to Post-Modernism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1986.
Wax, Emily. Scaffold Becomes a Monument Unto Itself. The Times 14 Jan. 2000, sec
Zaknic, Ivan MICHAEL GRAVES: RESTORING A LANGUAGE TO
ARCHITECTURE (an online essay by a student at Lehigh University)