Michael Graves: A household nameby Melanie Sommer, Minnesota Public Radio
Designer Michael Graves' name has become synonomous with Target, the retail store chain. Graves has designed several hundred household items for Target, including toasters, wall clocks and toilet brushes -- and made the idea of good design accessible to everyone.
St. Paul, Minn. — Michael Graves is an internationally-known architect, who has designed and built impressive structures in countries around the world. But his prominence as a designer really escalated because of a tea kettle.
In 1985, Graves designed a stainless steel tea kettle for the Italian firm Alessi -- and added a whimsical touch by perching a small bird on the end of the spout. More than a half million of those tea kettles have been sold to date.
What followed a few years later -- his affiliation with Target -- has made Michael Graves a household word.
The collaboration began in the late 1990s, when Target Corp. decided to help pay for the repair of the Washington Monument. Target said it would cover the cost of the scaffolding that needed to be built around the structure -- and promptly turned to Michael Graves to make the scaffolding visually pleasing.
Graves designed the scaffold in a pattern that mimicked the masonry of the building, covered it in a blue mesh sheath, and illuminated it with hundreds of lights.
It was such a success that Target considered reconstructing the scaffolding in Minneapolis after it was removed from the monument.
That plan never worked out. But a Target executive approached Graves about designing for the retailer itself. The deal was done, and the rest, they say, is history.
To date, Graves and his team have designed more than 800 products for the company -- including a slightly different version of his original Alessi tea kettle. And the collaboration continues.
Graves, a reknowned architect, recognizes that some in his field consider product design a "low-brow" enterprise. Graves said in a 2004 interview with FastCompany.com that he was concerned about the reaction he might get.
"I was worried that the press and my colleagues in architecture would think we were outside our limits. It doesn't matter if Ralph Lauren does Ralph Lauren Home and Ralph Lauren horses and mallets. He could do all this. He's a designer! But an architect? I thought we'd get killed by some nasty critics, or by some of my colleagues because they're so competitive with each other," said Graves. "But we got killed by only one critic, and the rest of the world loved the line. They loved the price. They loved the motivation. They loved a big box doing it."
Graves' connection to the Twin Cities goes beyond his affiliation with the Minneapolis-based Target Corp. He has designed several major arts venues in the area, including additions to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Children's Theatre Company of Minnesota, and the bandshell on Harriet Island in St. Paul.
Besides his architecture and design practices, Graves is the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus at Princeton University.
In 1999 Graves was awarded the National Medal of Arts and in 2001 the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.
In 2003, Graves contracted an infection, possibly bacterial meningitis, which paralyzed him from the waist down. He underwent many months of rehabilition afterward, but returned to work on a regular basis in 2004.