Remembering Michael Graves, a Legend

Michael Graves, FAIA, was one of the most well-known architects and designers in this country and even worldwide, especially after his major commissions for Disney and his prolific product designs for Target. He died last Thursday, and the news stunned us. While wheelchair-bound for more than a decade, Graves persevered in the final chapter of his life, leading his design firm and lecturing widely. He was an inspiration for that triumph of the human spirit alone.

Contract honored Graves with our 2013 Legend Award at the January 2013 Interiors Awards. The Legend Award celebrates an individual whose career and lifetime achievements have contributed in a significant way to the practice of commercial design. He was genuinely touched to have been selected as a Legend.

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Graves gives his acceptance speech for the Legend Award at the Interiors Awards, January 2013. Photo by Christian Grattan.

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Graves and Contract Editor in Chief John Czarnecki prior to the Interiors Awards, January 2013. Photo by Christian Grattan.

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Graves and Contract Editor in Chief John Czarnecki prior to the Interiors Awards, January 2013. Photo by Christian Grattan.

For the award, an excellent film about Graves was produced for Contract by Thirst, and that involved a day-long shoot in November 2012 at Graves’ own home in Princeton, New Jersey. There, Thirst’s Rick Valicenti and Bud Rodecker filmed Graves in various rooms. The film depicts Graves in his own words, as an architect and designer who has transformed his career and his practice. Graves’s narrative in the film is in response to interview questions from our writer James Russell, FAIA, who was there with me and Thirst for the filming.

Russell also authored the lengthy story about Graves that appeared in our January/February 2013. In the article, Russell captures the essence of Graves’s career, and writes: “Healthcare design is the new passion of the architect who brought a stylistic freedom and exuberant romance to architecture in the 1980s. Graves’s designs were a bracing breath of fresh air after the dour Brutalism of the 1970s and the hardened orthodoxies of late Modernism.”

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In his home in November 2012, Graves is interviewed by James Russell for the Interiors Awards film that Thirst produced for Contract. Photo by John Czarnecki

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Graves is interviewed by James Russell for the Interiors Awards film that Thirst produced for Contract. Photo by John Czarnecki

After spending a day in his home–and then seeing him accept the Legend Award to a thunderous, sustained standing ovation–what was striking was that Michael had an extraordinarily positive spirit. He did not quit, and he was not thinking about retirement. He remained active as an architect and designer, leading his architecture and design firm, as well as his product design company that was as busy as ever.

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In the painting studio of his home, Graves is interviewed by James Russell for the film that Thirst produced for Contract for the Interiors Awards. Photo by John Czarnecki

Graves designed more than 2,000 products for Target in a 15-year period, transforming consumers’ expectations of everyday products. And in recent years, Graves had developed a new focus on the design of products for healthcare interiors, learning from his own experiences having been in eight hospitals. Specifically for healthcare interiors, Michael designed furniture for Stryker, architectural glass for Skyline, and fabrics for CF Stinson, among many other products. And, just a few years ago, Michael helped to transform lives of wounded veterans by designing two prototype homes for the Wounded Warrior Project. As he described those homes, we could tell that he felt a kinship with the wounded warriors, and designing homes for them was his honor.

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The living room of the home of Michael Graves. Photo by John Czarnecki

For me, personally, it was an honor to bestow the Legend Award on Michael Graves. Just in the 20 years since I was an architecture student and studying Graves’s work to now, I have been absolutely inspired by the career of Michael Graves, and, in recent years, his resiliency. It was a privilege to be present in his home. And knowing the adversity and agony he had experienced, it was positively uplifting to hear him say, in person, “I do my work with such joy, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.“

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Michael Graves in his kitchen, November 2012, with the teakettle that he designed on the stove. Photo by John Czarnecki

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