From the August/September 2015 Issue:

Michael Graves

    Writer: Janet Purcell | Photographer: Peter Rymwid |

A legacy of purpose, creativity and well-being

Article Photo
enlarge | Michael Graves in his library, with most pertinent titles at hand level. He would select a book and then retreat for reading in the adjoining living room.
Editor’s Note: We were honored when world-renowned architect and product designer Michael Graves agreed to allow us to photograph and write about his Princeton home. And we were saddened to hear of his passing in March. With the blessing of his staff, we’re presenting the story as planned, interspersed with tributes from other architects. We wish his staff well as they continue his company, Michael Graves Architecture & Design, and turn his beloved home into a non-profit foundation and study center to inspire generations to come.

“It had good bones.” Michael Graves was matter of fact as he remembered his first reaction to the rundown warehouse he discovered while taking a leisurely walk in Princeton. “Its construction was what I remembered from my time in Italy, the barns in Tuscany especially.”

A recipient of the coveted Rome Prize for the highest standard of excellence in the arts and humanities, Graves spent 1960-1962 at the American Academy in Rome drawing the region’s barns and buildings. It was to be a period that strongly influenced not only his career but his personal lifestyle as well.

The old warehouse he discovered on his walk that day was built in 1927. Italian masons who came for construction projects at Princeton University built the warehouse strong and divided its two stories into dozens of windowless storage spaces with walls and ceilings made of hollow clay tiles. None of its 44 rooms measured more than 10 feet long.

“The place was a mess,” Graves said. “Water was leaking everywhere, and the floors were filthy. There was no plumbing or heat and the wiring was all bad, but I didn’t want it to be torn down. I wanted to save it.” He purchased the derelict warehouse in 1974 for $30,000.

“I hadn’t been teaching at the university very long and wasn’t able financially to do much renovation,” he recalled. “I had a studio at the university, but the department moved. So I came and lived here for 10 years like one of my students with just a piece of plywood on saw horses and a sink and stacks of dishes and glasses.”

It took more than 30 years and “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” with Graves doing much of the work himself, but he turned the old building into a home that exudes elegance as well as a warm, welcoming ambience, much like the man he was.

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enlarge | A wisteria-entwined loggia extends the library’s quiet space to the outdoors, where a line of pleached trees and a pair of circa 1880 Mediterranean terra-cotta oil jars stand guard. A flea market-purchased table and bistro chairs offer a comfortable place to enjoy this oasis.
Everyday Enjoyment
Through the years, Michael Graves merged his architectural expertise and artistic sensibilities with his credo that “the look and feel of everyday things can enhance life.” He applied this concept to the renovation of his L-shaped home, which is like a Mediterranean oasis in an American college town.

World-known for his prominent public building commissions and the exuberant Disney World Hotels in Florida, Graves was even chosen to design the unique scaffolding that surrounded the Washington Monument during its recent renovation. The Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore is among dozens of his other impressive achievements. In 1999 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2001 he received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal and in 2010 the AIA Topaz Medal, among many other honors. He also became widely known in the commercial market for designing more than 2,000 products for clients such as Kimberly-Clark, Stryker Medical, Alessi, JCPenney, Target and Disney. He also was an accomplished artist with gallery representation at Studio Vendome in Manhattan’s SoHo district.

Graves was a generous man, often lending his name, expertise and energy to help others. One of the organizations he was most passionate about is the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. He believed in the hospital’s mission and vision in rebuilding lives using world-class technology, translational research and family-like culture. Memorial gifts in his name are being used to help build the rehabilitation hospital, which he designed, and to honor him through a permanent naming opportunity. More information about the design project can be found at

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enlarge | Above a pair of matched 19th century Biedermeier chests flanking the library doors are two Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot copies that Michael Graves painted. A pair of tripod reproductions of first century brassieries that can be used as small coffee tables and a pair of Graves-designed lounge chairs complete the room’s balanced layout. Flowers in a blue glass vase with bronze armature, which Graves designed, sit on a 19th century Biedermeier table and add a graceful note to the room’s symmetry.
At Home, a New Beginning
When Graves was struck in 2003 with a spinal infection that left him with lower-body paralysis, he designed renovations to the home that made living with his disability more comfortable. “I’ve designed one-story Wounded Warriors homes so they wouldn’t need elevators,” Graves said. But rather than sell and move to a one-story home, “I loved this place, so I put in an elevator.”

He bumped out an outside wall to allow space for the elevator, and he completely redesigned his upstairs bathroom, taking space from a former closet and installing drains for a roll-in shower.

His original renovation of the warehouse included a skylight that allowed light to filter down into the first-floor foyer through a circular, balustraded opening in the second-story floor. To allow easy wheelchair passage, the balustrade was removed and solid glass was installed in the opening.

“You just have to use common sense,” he said.

That attitude guided him through all the renovations to the point where he no longer considered his home a warehouse. “I love it with a kind of compassion where all the rooms are set up in such a way that it’s a work of art,” he said. “It took some imagination to convert it, but I wanted to save it and, as I did, I came to love it.”

Michael Graves always encouraged his students to be lifelong learners after school. His life at the warehouse was just a prologue for his dream that it will endure as a non-profit foundation and study center to inspire generations to come. His estate is now working to make this dream into a reality.

“Michael taught generations of students, architects and designers to approach design with passion and joy, to respect history and our place in it, and to remember that design should not be too elitist or theoretical—we are, first and foremost, designing buildings, furnishings and products for people. It has been frustrating for Michael and us to see people in the media continuously sum up his long and prolific career by mostly referring to the transformational work of the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. That period, labeled as post-modernism, was indeed a time where Michael shook up the architecture world. However, that was only the early days of his career, and much of our best work came after that period. Michael was a tireless champion not only for good design but also responsible design —something that often seems missing in our current era that is obsessed with making iconic architecture for the sake of the icon.”
— Patrick Burke, AIA, Principal
Michael Graves Architecture & Design

“Michael was an instrumental force that shifted the design world toward post-modernism. By doing so, he popularized design. All architects believe design has the power to make the world a better place. Not only did Michael do that, he made quality design accessible to everyone and was one of the first proponents to do so. He took simple, humble objects that already functioned and improved them by implementing design excellence not often associated with the product-manufacturing world.”
— Robert Ivy, CEO
American Institute of Architects, Washington, DC

“Few architects have, like Graves, been so influential to an entire generation. His work and teaching defined an era of architecture where history and the symbolic dimension of architecture were seen as an alternative to what was understood as a deep disciplinary crisis for architecture. This was in fact his life-long search. He was both a point of reference and a contested figure that remained present in the public eye as a talented and committed artist, architect and designer. His work and teachings have no doubt earned him a place as one of the key figures in architecture history in the XXc.”
— Francisco E. Sanin, Director
Syracuse School of Architecture, London

“Given the extraordinary range of his work and influence on architectural education, the architecture profession
and associated design fields, Michael Graves’ legacy is truly multifaceted. He is and, in time, will be further understood to be part of the American architectural continuum of great architects…whose buildings characterize their time and resonate by marking significant thresholds in architectural thought. He will forever be credited with revitalizing traditional form and space-making principles by way of architectural drawing, humanistic plan making and the notion of narrative and meaningful language in architecture attained through the values of proportion, space and composition. The power of his influence and inspiration cuts sharply across, and therefore affected, the regularly contradictory worlds of higher education, professional practice, design culture and popular culture in the national and international arena of art, architecture and design.”
— Frank Martinez, Martinez & Alvarez Architects, Miami

“Michael’s was a passionate commitment to architecture as an art form, no different than the painting he did throughout his lifetime. Painting and architecture were in the service of his lifetime as a teacher dedicated to opening the minds, the eyes and the hearts of his students to that necessary commitment.”
— Peter Eisenman, FAIA
Eisenman Architects, New York City


Overall: architectural and interior design, Michael Graves; millwork and gold-leaf picture framing, Don Menke in Stockton. Library: wheelchair, iBot through Dean Kamen and DEKA Research & Development Corp. in Manchester, New Hampshire; bookshelves and posts, designed by Michael Graves and fabricated by Don Menke; carpets, Symourgh International in New York City. Exterior: terra-cotta jars, The Garden Antiquary, New York City; Honey Square bistro chairs, Palecek in Richmond, California. Living Room and Alcove: chests on each side of doorway, Rod McLennan Antiques in London; lounge chairs, designed by Michael Graves and made by Design America in New York City (now out of business); loveseat and 19th century Biedermeier round table in main living room and small bench in alcove, Niall Smith Antiques and Decorations in New York City; vase on table, Steuben Glass in New York City; floor lamp, Firedance Studio in Hopewell; wall panel, Zuber Wallcovering Co. in New York City; armchair to the left of the sofa, cabinet with cutout on one end of the alcove and drop-leaf desk on the other end, Schlapka Antiques in Munich, Germany; carpet in main living room and armchair in alcove, Juan Portela in New York City; objects on and in cabinet cutout in alcove, Graves’ Grand Tour souvenirs. Dining Room: table, bottom purchased during Graves’ travels and top fabricated by Don Menke; chairs, Niall Smith Antiques & Decorations and Schlapka Antiques; candelabra, Linda Horn Antiques in New York City; sconces, Ilex Architectural Lighting in East Taunton, Massachusetts; stove on mantel, Christie’s in New York City; carpet, Vorwerk & Co. in Hameln, Germany. Dining Room Alcove: painting, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago; table, Schlapka Antiques; chairs, inkwells and sculpture, Grand Tour acquisitions; freizes, Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen. Study: desk, Sotheby’s in New York City; Bieder­meier humidors, antiques; sculpture in right alcove, Grand Tour acquisition. Studio: chair, designed in the Lloyd Loom style; worktable, configured by Michael Graves; workout equipment, Reck Motomed in Germany. Kitchen: countertops, Pietra Fina Inc. in Hayward, California; custom table, Don Menke, pedestal bowls, toaster and coffee pot, Graves designed for JCPenney; canister set, can opener, blender and knife set, Graves designed for Target; vase and sugar/ creamer with tray, Graves designed for Alessi. Breakfast Room: table, custom by Don Menke; chairs, Newel Art Gallery in New York City; Etruscan items, collected during Graves’ travels; vase, Graves designed for Target; rug, Crate and Barrel; bronze staircase rail, Francois Guillemin of Firedance Studio; bust of Homer, Rod McLennan Antiques; pedestal, designed by Michael Graves. Entry: sculptures and rug, purchased during Graves’ travels. Upstairs Hallway: glass floor inset, Firedance Studio; Roman and Etruscan pots, collected during Graves’ travels.

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