Michael Graves’s Work for Target: His Most Enduring Legacy?

The democratization of design is the great design story of our age, and Graves is the only serious architect who has participated in it with total, unconflicted zeal.

There are two ways to look at the deluge of consumer products that have been spewing forth from the office of Michael Graves for the past several years. It could be an attempt to exploit the fixation with celebrity that has affected architecture as much as any other aspect of our culture—after all, Graves is as famous as any architect, and he has become more so since he started affixing his name to teakettles, spatulas, watches, tableware, candlesticks, earrings, lamps, faucet handles, and toasters. Or it could be an attempt to broaden the reach of design and extend an architect’s sensibility to people who will never be able to afford to hire any architect, let alone Michael Graves. Thanks to mass merchandising, a tiny piece of an architect’s ouevre is within the reach of everyone.

For all that the second theory may smack of noblesse oblige, I’m inclined to give it its due. The democratization of design is the great design story of our age, and Graves is the only serious architect who has participated in it with total, unconflicted zeal. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that he is as much a cause as an effect of this phenomenon. It was one thing when Graves created his teakettle for Alessi, in 1985, a witty if not entirely practical object that, despite its cost—it sells for about $100—became a kind of artifact of yuppiedom. It was quite another when Graves began designing objects for Target, the mass-market discount store where you could outfit an entire kitchen for $100.

The relationship between Graves and Target transformed both architect and client. It turned Graves into a figure who had to satisfy the demands of high-volume, low-cost production and made Target, paradoxically, into a purveyor of high culture (or at least into a purveyor of a simple low-end version of high culture). Rarely has an architect-client relationship been as mutually beneficial, where each brought the other into a world they could never have entered alone. And rarely, I suspect, has a business relationship in the world of mass marketing achieved something as close to equilibrium as this one. Graves is not a prima donna who dictates to Target what he wants and demands that the company produce it. But neither is he a workhorse, toiling without recognition and churning out whatever he is told to make. He is something in between, producing prototypes, experimenting, sending them to Target for its response, changing them, and changing them again. It is a relationship that resembles more the dealings between an architect and a client on a building project than a work-for-hire product designer.

It is tempting to think of the Graves-Target relationship as similar to the arrangements between fashion houses and prominent designers. I don’t mean to suggest that Graves is Tom Ford, but that while Graves’s name is part of what Target is selling, it is only part. There is also a look, a feel, to the products that is consistent, which comes largely from Graves’s own aesthetic. But the look also expresses the Target aesthetic, which embraces a kind of exuberant, upbeat, slightly embellished Modernism. His objects have a playfulness and warmth to them. They are almost always functionally right—mass marketers have pragmatism in their blood—and yet they always seem to have some whimsical detail that raises them above the purely practical. Sometimes it is a matter of shape: Graves has a particular fondness for slightly bulbous forms; his knife handles and toasters look like conventional ones into which some air has been pumped. Sometimes it is a matter of color, as in the cook’s tools with the soft bluish-gray Santoprene handles, or the cleaning brushes in the same color. A lot of the time, though, Graves indulges in a slight twist from the conventional that is fairly subtle. Much of his glassware, for example, isn’t altogether different from the stuff you see everywhere but for a slight change in the proportions and shape. The same can be said of some of his less inventive objects—garden furniture, brooms, ironing board, and hamper—which stand as reminders that you can’t redesign everything. In these cases Graves, perhaps restrained by the practical instincts of Target, ends up with something that doesn’t seem to offer much more than a famous signature at the bottom.

I have never thought of Graves as an architect driven primarily by a desire to see his name everywhere, however common his signature has become. Lately we think of Graves in another context since a serious illness has rendered him unable to walk and he is adjusting his life, office, and sensibilities to a new mode of working. Graves has always struck me as a designer who has the motivations of a teacher, who constantly tried to make his architecture understandable to the average person. He seeks to avoid both the abstraction of minimalism and the crutch of direct historical replication. Graves wants to make buildings that are new and different but have the accessibility of older ones. He has succeeded at this some of the time, but over the years his style has never quite taken on the relaxed, natural air that he seeks. Even his best buildings tend to be self-conscious; they can be overfussy compositionally and sometimes feel a little bit like cartoons.

The objects, however, manage to do what Graves has always wanted his buildings to do. When you look at his cooking implements, or at his chess set or Monopoly game or wall clocks, they seem exactly right. They look like the images we have always had of these familiar things but feel fresh at the same time. And almost all of them do something that is wonderful for any object to do, which is make you smile.

Categories: Design, Industrial Design