Renown for his vitriolic cadence and embrace of postmodern forms across architecture and industrial design, Michael Graves has become an important figure in architectural culture over decades of practice. Perhaps he is the only designer whose creations are equally debated and beloved in academia and discount retailers.
During the recent NeoCon East design conference in Baltimore, Graves took a moment between delivering a keynote address and stealing away to an Henri Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Art to speak privately with Architizer on his forays into product design, advice to young architects, and the state of the starchitect-obsessed profession.
The Denver Public Library (1990) stands beside Daniel Libeskind's Denver Museum of Art, which Graves describes as a "tragic crumbled piece of paper masquerading as a museum." Image courtesy Michael Graves & Associates
Architizer: How do conceiving a product and a building differ?
Michael Graves: It's simple: size and scale. Design is design; architecture is architecture.
When you're designing products for an affordable price range, what techniques do you employ to keep production costs low?
Usually it's in the material. We don't use sterling silver; we don't use anything precious. We actually have a hard time sometimes using any metal. Sometimes we go to porcelain to get the job done.
Silver "Piazza" coffee and tea service for Alessi. Image courtesy Michael Graves & Associates
What advice do you have for young architects and designers?
Stick with it, but read and learn how to make a plan. The whole industry has gone to pot. It's really awful out there with the Zaha Hadids, Rem Koolhaases, Daniel Libeskinds, and people like that. I hope it stops soon. Twenty-five people a month visit the [Hadid-designed] MAXXI Museum in Rome. They hate the building.
Graves attests that Singapore's Resorts World at Sentosa casino (2010) is "raking in the dough as Chinese gamblers sleep five or six to a room. It's tragic, too—and I was part of it."
What forces in contemporary culture are supporting such personality-driven architecture?
It's the same in art. We have blow-up puppies on the roof of the Met. At what point do you say, "This is bullshit"? I'm too smart to like that stuff, so I end up hating it.
Clos Pegase Winery, 1987, Napa, California. Image courtesy Michael Graves & Associates
Who do you think are people to look up to right now in architecture and design?
They're people you wouldn't even know. They're young. They're from schools of architecture that still teach architecture, like Miami and Maryland. I was just in Rome with a young man by the name of Frank Martinez. Frank teaches in Miami, and he's fabulous. He has a wonderful, wonderful mind. He's just like me when I was starting off, with additions to houses, small houses, things like that. But nobody cares about people like that! They want blob architecture. Why, I don't know.
The Humana Building (1982) in Louisville, Kentucky references the steel trusses of the nearby bridge that spans the Ohio River. Image courtesy Michael Graves & Associates
One of your most well-known commissions of the past ten years was for the expansion of the Detroit Institute of Arts. How do you feel about the city's present condition, and rumors of the museum selling pieces of its collection to pay municipal debt?
I don't think legally they're going to be able to sell off their collection, so I think we're saved by the lawyers. They have a great collection, and that would be a stop gap—they'd make millions of dollars selling the collection, but then they'd be back where they are. The problems are systemic in Detroit. Without industry, without culture, without schools, without the middle class in the city—it's going to stay the same for a while.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2007. Image courtesy Michael Graves & Associates
Many architects take solace in more traditional art practice. How have you utilized such pursuits?
I carry my sketchbook with me all the time. And I try to paint every week, usually Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and I have done over 100 paintings this last couple of years, since I have more time now. I used to play golf and do other physical activities, but I can't do that any more.
Painting has become a filler, which is wonderful. It started out with me wanting to own work by Corot, but I couldn't afford Corots, so I repainted them. I have six or eight "Corot"s in my house now—which are my own paintings. That got me started and there are many more landscapes now, which I call "remembered landscapes." I start by making drawings, and those drawings turn into paintings.
How do you feel the architecture and design industry treats people as they age?
People are pretty kind to me because I'm an old fart, and not a young person with no experience.
Read more coverage of Michael Graves' career here, and check Architizer next week for an in-depth look on how the architect's health struggles have inspired him to tackle hospital design.