by Jenna Lippin
A name that is renowned in the design world, Michael Graves (1934-2015) was an anomaly as an architect who, through his own experience, found success in solution-based product design geared to meet the everyday needs of most people. His firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D), with offices in Princeton, N.J., Washington, D.C., and Manhattan, was founded in 1964 and has undertaken a wide variety of projects. Even in his early days of work, he was involved in everything from master planning of cities to residential work designing homes and everything in them. His legacy lives on through every task the MGA&D team undertakes, and is well carried by partners who have been with the firm for many years. “We have a very close, sort of family-like relationship,” said Karen Nichols, FAIA, architecture principal who has worked with the firm for 40 years. “The interesting thing about us is not only the breadth of all we do, but that we also work on each other’s disciplines. We see how product design methodology can sometimes work in architecture and the other way around.”
With products selling in stores like Target and JCPenney, MGA&D designed goods that came head-to-head with household names like Cuisinart and KitchenAid. But when Graves’ health took a turn in the early 2000s, he realized there was a need for better-designed products in the healthcare space, which brought about the firm’s partnership with Stryker. These innovations became an addition to Graves’ legacy that lives on today.
Where it Began
After working across various areas in architecture and interior design, product design as a commercial enterprise started for Graves in 1979 with a limited edition rug collection for V’Soske. Soon after, Graves started drawing tables, chairs, sconces, etc., sparking the firm’s interest in working with furniture manufacturers. “Architecture was fascinating to the general public then, and it was in so much of the breadth of what we did,” Nichols said.
Intro to Alessi
In 1983, Graves was invited to participate in a promotional project by Alberto Alessi; he had 11 international architects each design a “Coffee and Tea Piazza,” which was a tray with a coffee pot, teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, and spoon. It was used in galleries to endorse Alessi's entry into the American market. Because of its popularity, Graves was then asked by Alessi to design the now famous whistling bird teakettle. This led to a decades-long collaboration that saw the introduction of more than 150 products.
Right on Target
The Alessi product collaboration ushered the name Michael Graves into the consumer products sphere, a space where his peers did not play. The firm soon began its design work with Target. “In the Target project, we developed [more than] 2,000 products in 22 categories of the store,” said Donald Strum, MGA&D principal of product design. “We made sure that when we were designing, we knew what was going on in the store. We knew within weeks if a product would make it, working directly with the marketing department of Target.”
Graves did a significant amount of work in the hospitality sector, with projects across the world in which the firm handled both the architecture and interior design. In 2006, MGA&D won a competition for Resort World Sentosa, a 3.5 million-square-foot “integrated resort”; the firm conceptualized the plan, carried out the building, and furnished the interiors.
The Curve Ball
The turning point that brought MGA&D into the healthcare segment came when Graves became ill in 2003. He developed a sinus infection that traveled to his spine, and overnight he lost all feeling from his chest down. With much time in the hospital, he realized how frustrating these environments could be, having difficulties with everyday tasks, unable to reach the knobs of the sink from his wheelchair. “It was a devastating experience and it was an eye-opener,” Nichols said. “But he still had his hands, and he was great at drawing; that’s how his creative process flowed. We went back and forth every day to keep his spirits up and keep him engaged in practice.”
Lemons to Lemonade
With that, Graves tasked his team with improving products for healthcare. “We said, ‘OK, we’ve seen what this is like now, and we can do this better,’” Nichols recalled. “The situation had to be fixed.” Graves asked Strum to use a wheelchair for a few days and he was met with extreme difficulty. With the empathy he developed, Strum and the rest of the firm became immersed in this new project. This brought MGA&D to its relationship with Stryker Medical, redesigning various elements in the standard
hospital patient room in addition to a patient transport chair.