Smart, Savvy, & Chic: The Design & Art of Michael Graves

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

What do whistling teakettles, swan-topped hotels, advanced wheel chairs, a cube-shaped house, and Indiana have in common? The answer, of course, is architect Michael Graves, an Indiana native son.

In our print collection is an abstractly architectural piece that many may not be aware of—Indianapolis born Michael Graves’ 1972 untitled screenprint, a gift we received in 1991.

An abstract, architectural work.
Michael Graves, American, 1934-2015. Untitled. Screenprint, 1972. Gift of Anonymous, 1991.05. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Graves, who died in 2015, was well known as a postmodernist architect who taught at the Princeton School of Architecture for 39 years. Praise, awards, and controversy have all been associated with his buildings, and postmodernism in general, but Graves’ buildings proliferated – to more than 350, globally. You may know his work in Orlando – the Swan and Dolphin Hotels at Disney World. His Portland Building is held up as a key example of postmodernism, though not always with enthusiastic acceptance.  A postmodernist salute to the Parthenon can be seen in Graves’ Team Disney building (the Eisner building) in Burbank, California. It incorporates seven 20-foot tall dwarves as pediment supports. In Indianapolis there are the St. Vincent Health building (formerly Thomson Consumer Electronics) on U.S. 31 in Carmel, the Indianapolis Art Center in Broad Ripple, and the NCAA Hall of Champions downtown on West Washington.

As a child, I was obsessed with drawing things, like Mickey and Donald. And houses. My mother was worried I’d become an artist.

Michael Graves

Aside from our gorgeous print, there are other colorful Michael Graves ties to Fort Wayne. His first built residence is here. Graves’ childhood friend, Lois Hickman, and her then husband, Jay Hanslemann, commissioned Graves in the late 1960s when Graves was barely out of school to design their home. In 1980, Lois would bring Graves back to Fort Wayne to design the interior of her restaurant, du Jour, at the corner of Pearl and Harrison Streets.

The Le Corbusier-inspired Hanselmann home of two intersecting white cubes sits in a wooded lot beside a stream in southwest Allen County, and is now available for AirBnb customers to experience.  The mural painted by Graves on its living room wall includes references to the house’s natural setting and even the family cat! The mural’s motifs and palette are reminiscent of our Michael Graves print in its concise blend of architectural and organic elements in pastels and primary colors.

Graves actually designed two homes in this city — the Snyderman House (1973) was destroyed by arson in 2002. 

In 1985, after losing the Whitney Museum of American Art expansion project, Graves applied his architectural design skills and a bit of whimsy to houseware design, and the iconic Alessi Kettle-9093 was born.

When I draw something, I remember it. The drawing is a reminder of the idea that caused me to record it in the first place. That visceral connection, that thought process, cannot be replicated by a computer.

Michael Graves

In 1997, Michael Graves Architecture & Design was contracted by the National Parks Service to construct the scaffolding for the restoration of the Washington Monument. The corporate sponsor for the project was Target. More than just a functional construction scaffolding, the Graves’ treatment became public art.  He designed a blue-grey fabric scrim that mimicked the pattern of the actual surface of the monument.  The semi-transparent fabric was draped over lights that were attached to the entire scaffolding allowing the monument to remain as a gleaming beacon during its restoration. In 2011, when an earthquake required the monument to again be scaffolded, Graves’ artful covering was revived.

The 1997 partnership with corporate sponsor Target established the Graves firm as a key product designer for them. He was the first of 180 designers whose products would democratize design by making chic cheap. Michael Graves Design sold more than 2,000 original, exclusive products across Target in 20 categories for over 15 years. Coincidentally, September 14, 2019 was the 20th anniversary of Target’s Design for All campaign, and a Graves whistling teakettle is, once again, available to Target shoppers.

All of this underscores Michael Graves accomplished life, but there is a great deal more to his story. When he died in 2015 he had been wheelchair-bound for over a decade. His spinal cord was catastrophically damaged by a sinus infection that spread to his brain during an intense spell of overwork and travel.  Instead of allowing himself to succumb to partial paralysis, he set about to improve the environs and lives of medical patients.  His experiences in several hospitals and clinics were so fraught with the frustrations of poor design in rooms, furniture and fixtures, that he went about redesigning them with the goal of establishing standards for all American medical facilities.

I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.

Michael Graves

In 2013, Graves was appointed by President Obama to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the federal agency also known as the Access Board. His personal challenges and design expertise made him an ideal adviser on accessibility issues and standardization. Michael Graves was also devoted to improving the lives of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars through the Wounded Warriors Home Project; providing practical and beautiful solutions to those suffering combat trauma and limb loss. 

“I wanted to design something veterans would be proud to live in, something that looks normal.”

Michael Graves

Michael Graves’ skills, esthetic sensibilities, and great drive exposed the world to his unique outlook – one in which we can be soothed, and maybe even healed, by a bit of whimsy, beauty, and smart design.

When you’re painting you start with the sweep of the landscape, but then as you start to recompose it and fill it in, you often find yourself painted into a corner. The escape from the corner — that’s the best part of it, the most exciting moment.

Michael Graves

Michael Graves’ honors: AIA Gold Medal; National Medal of Arts from President Clinton; Topaz Medallion from the AIA/ACSA; Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame; Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters; Member of the Board of Trustees of the American Academy in Rome

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