I was so sad to hear of Michael Graves’ death last week. I couldn’t help but think how much his architecture and product designs changed our aesthetic landscape (at least the man-made part of it) in America. From prominent buildings to everyday items like that famous Alessi teakettle (or the Target hangers in my closet), he lent a sense of colorful whimsy to everyday life.
Thank heavens we have the Arts Council building in Princeton, since the University has no Graves designed buildings thanks to a policy of not using their own faculty members as their architects. Graves took criticism for his everyday household item designs, especially from the ivory tower academics and some media, but that designing let him have a far broader impact on more people than just about any other architect in this country. And when he became wheelchair-bound after an illness in 2003, he started designing for those with physical challenges. I can’t even think of another architect who might come close to his broad influence, except for Frank Lloyd Wright. (I confess to limited architectural and design knowledge, although I’ve always had a soft spot for the former, and even had folders full of floor plans I collected from newspapers and magazines as a kid.)
It was Graves’ designs for Target that I have to at least partially thank for my writing career. When his line of housewares debuted at Target just as they opened their store in Nassau Park in 1998, Graves appeared at the store on opening day to sign (with indelible markers and an etching pen) his housewares. Target had agreed to donate one or two small appliances to Princeton’s Taste of the Nation, for which I was volunteer PR person. (I eventually chaired the event a for couple years.) One of my committee members stood in line to have him sign a teakettle and a toaster for our auction.
That reminded the Packet’s then Lifestyle Editor Ilene Dube that she needed someone to write a Shoptalk column about Target. We’d been on the phone discussing Taste and Target’s donation (the Packet was a major media sponsor), and when I mentioned how much I loved Target when I lived out west, she asked me to write the column. I gulped and said, sure! So I had a ball there on opening day, wandering the aisles and taking notes, and that was the start of my writing for the Packet.
The article was a success and I started writing the occasional feature about authors and other topics, including the article pictured here (and the text is below) about Grave’s designs for private homes in Princeton. It’s true, if you drive around some of the residential areas, peering past the façade of homes into backyards, you may spy a Graves addition or two. They may be more obscured by trees now, but as I remember there were several, and I was priviledged to tour one of them, thanks to the gracious owners.
So, Graves was part of my starting to write for the Packet in the first place, and the subject of one of my favorite articles for them in the early days. Eventually, I started gravitating toward culinary topics, at which point Ilene invited me to start reviewing restaurants. From there, I branched out to In The Kitchen Columns too.
Post Modern Living – Celebrated Architecture
(February 2001 Princeton Packet Spring Home & Garden magazine)
Architect Michael Graves has been known to call himself a “general practitioner” of architecture. And his record seems to confirm that. From world famous public buildings, such as the Swan and Dolphin hotels in Disney World, to housewares sold at Target stores, he has completed an enormously versatile range of projects, and been the recipient of many of architecture’s most prestigious awards.
In February he was awarded the highest honor the American Institute of Architects confers on an individual – the Gold Medal. His expression of contemporary design has come, to many people, to epitomize the postmodern movement, although he prefers not to be pigeonholed as a “postmodernist.” Indeed, much of his work is firmly rooted in classical architectural design, and as time goes on his work has become more figurative, more a reflection of how we really live our lives.
Large public buildings tend to intimidate us, and yet there’s a certain enjoyment in our appreciation of their importance. The postmodernist deconstruction and re-assembly of design elements can give rise to off-putting abstraction when it comes to a home — can one actually live in such a space, much less raise a family, do the wash, reheat leftovers for dinner?
The answer is “yes” if it is a Graves design. Touched with lovely classical references, tied to the surrounding landscape, uplifted by a splash of whimsy and careful strokes of subtle color, his residential work is very much to be lived in and enjoyed.
It would be nice, very nice, to have a substantial public building designed by Michael Graves in Princeton. But with a University policy against hiring its own faculty, of which Graves is a member, to design campus buildings, and the current Arts Council building plans on hold, that is not likely to happen in the near future. So if you want your very own Graves architectural creation, it’ll have to be in your own home.
His own home, called “The Warehouse” and located on a quiet street in Princeton, has evolved over many years into a warm and personal haven. Originally constructed by the Italian craftsmen who came to work on the Princeton campus in the 1920’s, and at one time used to store students’ furniture, it has been reclaimed, space by space, and has now been the feature of many glossy architectural write-ups. The exterior is warm stucco, and resembles an Italian Tuscan villa. Most of us would call our possessions “stuff”, but in this setting, “stuff” becomes “objects” as Fran Leibowitz drolly commented in her BBC television tour several years ago. (Indeed, some of the “objects” were originally curbside finds!)
Several of Grave’s residential projects were on view during a YWCA house tour in the mid-90’s, and a little sleuthing helped me put together a driving tour of my own. In the most unexpected places, deep in conservative neighborhoods, I would suddenly catch a glimpse of a contemporary addition to an older home. The effect could be startling, and yet I could see that these additions had “softened in,” and become part of that neighborhood’s landscape. In his notes for the YWCA tour, Graves wrote, “…my work now uses color more directly as part of the composition, contributing to the building’s character and the understanding of its relation to the surrounding context. Issues of character…can be played into the narrative of the architecture.”
These homes will be forever thought of as “Graves houses.” They are called by the name of the family who originally commissioned his work, even though new owners may have settled in some time ago. I was allowed to tour one such home, the “Alexander House,” now owned by Helmut and Eva Schwab. Constructed in the early 1970’s, this addition to the back of a 1930’s colonial-style house includes a 900 square foot downstairs area with a kitchen, family area, and desk, and an upstairs library.
With floor to ceiling windows, the downstairs addition is flooded with light. The floor is laid with earth-colored ceramic tile, adding warmth to the look of the room. Outside is a snow-covered landscape, inside is all is airy and spacious, lending a continuum to our view. In a deep bay windowsill in front of the desk, Mrs. Schwab has laid down a layer of beach sand and pretty shells she has collected on trips. It is a most pleasant contrast to the wintry view beyond.
To the left of the desk, outside, one can see an open frame across the back of the house partially enclosing a porch. The structure has a sculptural quality, and even sports a whimsical “open window” rectangular sculpture high up near the trees at the edge of the property.
Inside, to the right of the desk is a curvilinear wall of glass bricks, giving a sense of privacy to the family area. Opposite that wall a curved counter and overhead shelving for glassware delineate the kitchen area. Other shelving displays a collection of colorful ceramic pitchers, glassware, other kitchen items. It is a functional and well-designed space for a family.
Upstairs, in a smaller area of the Graves addition, is a cozy library, looking out onto the peaked room of the larger kitchen area below. Now lined with books and small collections, this room was for some time used as a child’s bedroom. During that period, a Graves-designed mural on the backyard wall, an abstraction of soft pleasant color, was covered, but now it has been restored to its original glory, the Schwabs proudly tell me. A sliding pocket door provides privacy, and windows up here are more like “portals” to the outside, with functional inside shutters for when a little “cocooning” is in order. There is a niche in the wall at bed height, with a soft recessed light, another thoughtful Graves touch.
The wall opposite the mural used to be an outside wall, with windows looking out the front of the house; now the owners have added on a large airy home office for Mr. Schwab in that once exterior space. However they’ve left in the original windows, now glassless, to provide for communication between his workspace, her reading area. The shutters are still in place, though, and the couple joked that you could judge their mood by whether or not the shutters are open.
Around the corner of the library is a small bathroom. It, too, has a window above the sink that is now an inside wall of the new office space. In that window they have placed a large poster of Munich, Germany and a vase of silk flowers. When you open the shutters, the fan goes on and the “view” lights up – a wonderful effect!
So here is a Graves home, loved and lived in. The Schwabs obvious appreciation of Mr. Graves’ work is reflected in their own creative and whimsical adaptations to the original design. They’ve shown a sensitive appreciation of living in a “Graves home,” yet made it truly their own. And isn’t that what the essence of home is all about – making it your very own?