From the April/May 2015 Issue:

Michael Graves: Post-postmodern

    By: John Zeaman |

An exhibit features the famed New Jerseyan’s work, from architecture to paintings, sculpture and even kitchen products

Article Photo
enlarge | Model of Portland Building by Michael Graves. 1982. Cardboard, paper, paint. Courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates; Photo by Ken Ek
In Renaissance Italy, masters such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Andrea del Verrocchio provided their patrons with a remarkable variety of services. Brunelleschi was a goldsmith, sculptor, architect and engineer. The workshop of Verrocchio (where Leonardo da Vinci apprenticed) produced paintings, sculpture and metalwork. In today’s much more specialized world, however, you rarely see that kind of versatility.

Then, there’s Michael Graves.

Known primarily as an architect, Graves is a contemporary Renaissance man who also makes paintings and drawings that are owned by museums and displayed in galleries. He has done murals and designed sculpture to go with his buildings. And through his workshops—today called “practices”—he designs both designer goods—elegant furniture, dinnerware and lamps—along with hundreds of consumer objects for Target and J.C. Penney—everything from tea kettles to toilet brushes.
When a spinal infection left him partially paralyzed in 2003, he continued this prolific output and added to it the design of wheelchairs, canes, hospital furniture and other healthcare devices.

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enlarge | Top: Alessi Tea Kettle by Michael Graves. 1984. Stainless steel, polyamides. Courtesy of Michael Graves Design Group Bottom: 2-Slice Toaster for J.C. Penney by Michael Graves. 2013. Stainless steel. Courtesy of Michael Graves Design Group
A Life of Achievement
Design writers struggle to predict what Graves’ legacy will be. The household products? The healthcare devices? My own bet is the architecture, specifically his daring break from modernism in the late 1970s, a movement that came to be known as postmodernism.

He helped pave the way so other architects could move beyond modernism in their own ways, whether it’s the frozen animation style of Zaha Hadid known as parametricism, the planned chaos of Frank Gehry’s deconstructivism or the new classicism of Robert A.M. Stern.

Today Graves, who is 80, continues apace even as he collects accolades and marks the kinds of milestones that would signal retirement for less vigorous creators. He has lived, worked and taught in Princeton for five decades. He’s received all the big awards and is in the New Jersey Hall of Fame. He is this state’s contribution to the international “starchitect” firmament, but has never considered himself to be too famous to design things around home—buildings and renovations in Princeton, New Brunswick, Maplewood, Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken, among others.

Recently, Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, Mercer County, launched a retrospective, “Past as Prologue” (through April 5) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his practice and his long professorship at Princeton University. The exhibit has been a window to all the facets of his career through drawings, photographs, models and design objects.

After earning a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, Graves’ went to Italy in 1960 as a recipient of the Rome Prize. The drawings he did there of classical buildings not only planted seeds that would later influence his architecture, but also marked the beginning of a lifelong devotion to drawing and painting. His elegant, color elevation drawings were instrumental in his then-little-known firm receiving its first big commission: the 1976 Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Bridge. One of those drawings, which looks a little like a cubist composition by Fernand Leger, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibit at Grounds for Sculpture allows viewers to see the decade of works that preceded his break with modernist purity. There’s little clue as to the direction he would ultimately take in these Corbusier-inspired houses—boxy, white buildings festooned with what a fellow architect complained were “railings, metal trellises, unexplained pipes, exposed beams, inexplicable and obtuse tube—most to no apparent real or architectural purpose.”

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enlarge | Central Zone, Resorts World Sentosa, 2012. Courtesy of Resorts World Sentosa and Michael Graves & Associates
Breaking Out
Seeing these early works gives you a good idea of the theoretical straightjacket that constrained academic architects of the time. Graves’ bid for freedom came in 1977 with the Plocek House, perched atop a hill in Warren. Today, with its two-tone façade and abstracted columns, it looks like a hybrid—part modernist box, part Italian palazzo, but it marked the beginning of a revolution.

Five years later, Graves did the 15-story Portland Building, which architectural historian Charles Jencks called “the first major monument of post-modernism…[and] the first to show that one can build with art, ornament and symbolism on a grand scale…” This was seven years before Philip Johnson’s famed 1984 AT&T Building with its broken pediment, or “Chippendale top.”

At the time, this playing around with classical elements tended to create the impression that a revival of the classical tradition was taking place. But that wasn’t really the case. Graves and Johnson were very careful to use historical elements in a self-conscious way. They presented these elements as if they were making a theoretical point. They were, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his takedown of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, talking to other architects as much or more than they were trying to please the public.

Nowadays, architects such as Robert A.M. Stern use classical forms and decoration for the same reason the 19th century Beaux-Arts architects did—to enrich, embellish and make beautiful. There is no tongue-in-cheek in what these new classicists do, just as there is no irony in the countless “postmodern” designs that proliferated in shopping centers and McMansions all over the country. Their pasted-on columns and pediments, their Palladian windows and grandiose entryways have often been in bad taste, but they’re completely in earnest.
Graves, as this exhibit makes clear, has a natural tendency toward playfulness that should no longer be confused with irony. You can see it in his cartoonish sketches of historical monuments, household products and chess figures. His chunky toaster and the conical teapot are one part pop art, one part Art Deco.

It’s not surprising then, that Graves would have been drawn into a collaboration with Disney. Here his comic-book bent and his fondness for pop culture ripened into pure whimsy. His 1990 Dolphin and Swan Hotels outside Walt Disney World in Orlando are sentimental fantasies. It wouldn’t be unfair to call them kitschy. How else to describe 63-foot dolphins waving their tails? Or equally monumental swans? Or the curvy waves inscribed in the stucco facades and the stepped seashell fountains. The same could be said of the Disney Headquarters in Burbank, where the seven dwarfs of Snow White are positioned like columns across the upper façade.

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enlarge | Denver Library, South Elevation, by Michael Graves. 1994. Pencil and colored pencil on yellow tracing paper. Courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates; Photo by Ken Ek
The Story Continues
Since then, Graves’ architecture has settled into a style that is neither ironic, pop nor kitschy. He has continued to assemble geometric volumes—the basic forms of cube, sphere and cylinder—and to paint them in a primary palette of brick red, sandstone yellow and cerulean. His 1995 Denver Central Library with its central rotunda is a solid and elegant composition. There is no sense of cardboard appliqué or historical pastiche. And, although his current work is sometimes described as new classicism, the abstraction and restraint keep it closer to minimalist sculpture than to Beaux-Arts exuberance.

In 1997, in another demonstration of his imagination and willingness to take on just about any design problem, he designed a fabric covering for the scaffolding used to surround the restoration of the Washington Monument. It became immensely popular with its lights twinkling at night and its simulation of stone construction that evoked the obelisk within. If you get to the Grounds for Sculpture exhibit in time, you can see a large scale-model of it.

His efforts to improve on the design of healthcare devices and furniture, which he currently does in partnership with Stryker, a medical technology company, couldn’t be more earnest, more centered on pure function. But they are not without the Graves’ playfulness and his credo that the look and feel of everyday things can enhance life. His canes, in three different colors with three different handles and two different tips, make for a jaunty display in the Grounds for Sculpture exhibit, where visitors have been encouraged to pick their favorites on paper ballot.

In an era when many architects design on the computer, Graves turns out beautiful drawings, many of which sell at galleries for prices that have gone as high as five figures. In a 2012 op-ed piece for The New York Times, he called on architects and students not to lose touch with tactile creation, especially in the early stages of design.

“Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets,” he wrote. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands. This last statement is absolutely crucial to the difference between those who draw to conceptualize architecture and those who use the computer.”

A Renaissance master couldn’t have said it better.

Editor’s Notes: See our August/September issue for a feature on Michael Graves’ Princeton home. Meanwhile, “Past as Prologue” continues through April 5 at Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for
The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.