Michael Graves with his Alessi teakettle
Graves with the famous teakettle he designed for Alessi at his studio in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2003. Daniel Hulshizer/AP

A new biography of the architect tells of his rise from small-town Indiana to partnerships with Disney and Target, and how disability shaped his outlook.

Most architects would be satisfied to be remembered as the standard-bearer of a new style. In the case of Michael Graves (1934-2015), that style was Postmodernism, which he introduced to the world in the form of a be-swagged, multicolored building in Portland, Oregon, in 1982. Postmodernism went on to become the dominant style of commercial and civic buildings in the United States and Europe through the mid-1990s.

But Graves—curious, restless, and a workaholic—didn’t stop there. He left his mark on industrial design, too, with timeless objects like his famous “bird-whistle” teakettle, designed for the Italian housewares company Alessi, and an entire product line for Target. In later life, he devoted much of his energy to making hospital rooms more comfortable for the patients confined to them, and to creating spaces and devices that could be used easily by people with disabilities—people like himself. Graves was paralyzed from the chest down by an infection in 2003, at the age of 69.

Journalist Ian Volner conducted numerous interviews with Graves for a memoir planned by the architect before his sudden death in 2015. The memoir then became a biography by Volner, Michael Graves: Design for Life (Princeton Architectural Press, $30), published last month. CityLab talked with Volner about Graves’s arc from small-town obscurity to stardom, and how to reconcile the various sides of his architecture and character.

(Princeton Architectural Press)

Graves was fairly uncultured when he arrived at the University of Cincinnati, and he felt like a hayseed for the first part of his career. Did he eventually shake off that feeling of inferiority?

I don’t think he quite did, in some ways. The way his architecture sometimes wore its historical and cultural bona fides on its shoulder was almost compensatory. He was always immensely conscious of station and status. It’s peculiar, because this jibes strangely with a character who in other ways was so good-natured and liked practical jokes, and whose architecture was so much possessed of a sense of humor.

To the degree that he did acquire culture, and become something less of a hayseed, it was through very deliberate effort that really didn’t kick into gear until after his undergraduate and graduate training. It was in Rome, when he started spending time in the American Academy library there and touring the city. His wife at the time used the phrase “get smart”: “Time to get smart, Mike.”

Drawing had an unusual importance in Graves’ design and thought process—can you describe it?

He always referred to his sketchbooks as visual diaries. He couldn’t understand or remember a thing until he’d drawn it, and then it became real to him. Drawing has come in and out of fashion in architectural circles in the modern era. The height of his fame as an architect coincided with when architectural drawing was very much in vogue—not just in the sense of the way people were practicing [architecture], but in the art market as well.

Graves drawing on the streets of Rome, 1962 (Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design)

Here was this moment when [drawing was] enjoying unprecedented popularity, and here comes this guy who has this uncanny visual sensibility and can draw in the Beaux-Arts fashion, with a predilection toward very legible elevations. Also, using a totally original palette. His ideas on color were entirely his own, and his formal language was also his own. That allowed him to prosper.

[Drawing] remained necessary [to him] long after the architecture field had moved on and into digital rendering as the primary lodestone of practice. That left him looking a bit like a Luddite. The virtue of it to his late career was that, sure, it may have seemed somewhat retrograde, but this was in a field that had in some ways become all too enamored of digital techniques.

It also was a form of protest. It was an insistence on humanist values and the individual creative effort. That to me is kind of fascinating.

Was there a particular commission that you’d say was pivotal to his career?

The one that features in the book as the fulcrum is Portland. I think that’s what the majority of architectural [historians] point to as the Michael Graves breakthrough moment. The way I’ve tried to configure this in the book is to understand Postmodernism and Michael Graves’s role within it as integral to the way that modern media began to operate in the 1980s.

The Portland Building, completed in 1982, shown after the Portlandia statue was installed in 1985 (Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design)

Portland, because of its striking visual presence, how different it was, and the particular imagistic character of the building, was definitely the vehicle that made Michael Graves, Michael Graves. I don’t think it’s the most emblematic of his practice, and of his particular thoughts about Postmodernism. The far more intriguing building is Humana [the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky]. It had a vastly bigger budget and a more amenable client.

Between the buildings there’s no question: If someone were to ask me which to see, it’s Humana, Humana, Humana. It really holds up. The assemblage of elements on the facade is really compelling. It’s a strange beast, make no mistake. But it works urbanistically remarkably well.

The Humana Building, pictured in 2011 (Ed Reinke/AP)

It has this one quality which very few [critics] get, which is in his process, especially in his mature phase, he’s always imagining facades as susceptible to different possible readings and compositions. Humana somehow seems to suggest, in the space of a single facade, that you could almost take [this or] that element and put it down here or up there.

That possibility and sense of contingency within a recognizable figurative language, where the individual “words” are so clearly defined—that’s the promise of his work at its best.

There’s a reassessment of Postmodernism under way right now. People are divided over what to do with these buildings. Are the buildings misunderstood?

There’s this problem you run into as a biographer. It’s generally assumed you perform one of two roles: Either you’re here to write hagiography, or you’re here to do a hit piece. I will say, to recall [Shakespeare], I come not to praise Caesar. I’m not suggesting a return to Postmodernism.

I do think Postmodernism is of lasting value—and there’s a potent way it’s of interest [today], which is that a lot of contemporary architects hold Postmodernism at arm’s length with a kind of condescension. Like, “Well, there’s a mistake we’ll never make again.” When in point of fact, contemporary practitioners are still strugling with the same problems, just doing it in different ways.

The communicative objectives of Graves’s early projects are very difficult to tease out. Primarily, they were talking about the building’s own coming into being and space. The spatial development of the building is naturally a kind of hermetic thing: It’s architecture addressing architecture.

What Graves began to recognize, or believe, is that most people didn’t care how architecture talked to architecture. They wanted architecture to talk to them, their values, their history, the place where they happened to be. Reviews stung him and began to change his thinking. The kinds of narratives he started working into his buildings were about place and about history.

Postmodernism was more candid in addressing these problems. Graves was almost too desperate to connect [with the public]. But even I do not suggest we could all go back and be historicists again. The struggle of what to do with [the style’s legacy], that’s a humdinger.

The biography starts with a day-by-day account of the illness that left Graves paralyzed in 2003. That turned his attention to healthcare design and designing for disability. It can be hard to see the connection between the formalist Graves and this socially committed Graves. How do the two sides relate to each other?

It could be argued, as indeed some of his closest friends argued, that his turn to a design of high civic virtue and social values was in a way circumstantial. Would he ever have done this had he not been confined to a wheelchair? Probably not. I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a school and physical therapy center for children with special needs, completed in 2006 (Courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design)
In his studio in 2009, Graves displays a bathtub handle he designed for elderly and disabled people. (Mel Evans/AP)

But that doesn’t make that modulation in his practice any less authentic. He was serious about this. He was biliously angry at the condition of the built environment for people of limited mobility, and for disabled people in general. His passion for this was completely authentic. As much as it was precipitated by his illness, there’s this pattern of obstacles in his life dating back to his mother’s illness [she had one leg amputated below the knee after a botched surgery], his own strabismus [a misalignment of the eyes], all these moments where disabilities play a prominent role in his life, and where his primary action as a designer seems to be about trying to find a way to make those work.

That’s the leitmotif of his whole life, the through line of the book. It’s about accessibility in both senses of the word. Meaning that we can access the work—it connects with us emotionally—and access it in the purely functional sense, as something we can get into and out of and use easily.

They are deeply connected. That is what brings his whole career together. And his life, in many ways. That is how I’d say the whole thing hangs in one piece.

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