A Design for Living

After Michael Graves fell ill, his business had one of its best years ever. This great designer’s greatest design may be his company.

Maybe it was the stack of screaming yellow Hazmat buckets in the corner that gave Michael Graves the will to live. Or the big gray barrel emblazoned with the warning: ambulance waste. Or possibly the view of the Soviet-style concrete parking garage across the driveway from the hospital.


All Graves remembers from one terrible afternoon last December was that as he lay, critically ill, on a gurney in the University Medical Center at Prince-ton’s ambulance bay waiting to be transported to New York, one overpowering thought gripped him: “I do not want to die here, because it’s so ugly.”

Graves delivers this line to an audience of staffers sitting around a conference table in his Princeton, New Jersey, office. They laugh merrily, although the joke has a practiced feel, as if it had been trotted out regularly to mute the painful reality of Graves’s current situation. In late February 2003, the man who helped rescue architecture from the chilly geometry of midcentury modernism, and revolutionized product design with his affordable creations for Target Stores, began a struggle with an illness that, if it didn’t kill him, threatened to rob him of the very thing he lives for: his work. Eighteen months later, Graves has emerged, disabled but still in command of his craft and his two firms, Michael Graves & Associates and Michael Graves Design Group. What’s more, his companies have had a wildly successful year, with a flurry of new product-design deals, a slew of new architectural commissions, and the gala celebration of the fifth anniversary of their partnership with Target.

Much like Tom Sawyer’s delicious glimpse of his own funeral, Graves’s near-death experience has given him something few of us are afforded: a first-hand taste of his own legacy. If he ever doubted it before, he must know now that he is a seminal figure in architecture and design, and that his career stands as a testament to the value of a lifetime well spent on good work. But the catastrophic events of the past year have revealed an even more remarkable achievement. Graves has built something larger and more enduring than himself — a team that will carry on his life’s work without him. That’s highly unusual for any leader whose unique creativity and vision are the essential life force of an organization. Think of Martha Stewart Living’s prospects with Martha in jail, or Apple’s years in the wilderness without Steve Jobs. But far from faltering in his absence, Graves’s firms have thrived. This great designer’s greatest design may turn out to be collaborative organizations that could replicate, amplify, and extend his genius.


True, a mere 105 architects and designers will have a tough time matching the accomplishment of a single Graves, whose witty creations — from a singing teakettle for Alessi to the Dolphin and Swan hotels at Disney World — have become true American icons. It’s a remarkable record of achievement that dates back to a childhood in Indianapolis, when Graves’s mother told her drawing-obsessed child that if he wasn’t as good as Picasso, he’d starve. She suggested he become either an engineer or an architect. When he discovered what engineers did for a living, he picked the alternative. He followed that calling from architecture school in Cincinnati and at Harvard to the American Academy in Rome, to a professorship at Princeton, to an array of brilliant buildings, to the National Medal of Arts in 1999, and the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 2001 — the highest award the 63,000-member body can confer on an individual.

But now, strapped in a bulky wheelchair, dressed in a cable-knit sweater in his trademark slate blue, and shadowed by his beloved yellow Lab, Sara, Graves is confronted daily with his losses, both large and small. There is, for example, no wheelchair access to his book-lined former office at 341 Nassau Street, a charming old yellow-brick building that dates back to the late 1700s and once served, he loves to tell visitors, as the town brothel. Instead, he has had to relocate down the block to a functional but prosaic building that can accommodate his chair. An inveterate globe-trotter, he now finds travel difficult and exhausting. An urbane, cosmopolitan man who loves being around people, he is now dependent on others reaching out to him. And an avid golfer, he’s now forced to find a way to practice his sport from the seat of a golf cart.

Still, Graves is grateful to finally be back at work full time. And to those who would try to write him off because of his condition, he has one defiant message: Don’t count him out. He notes the array of citations and tributes he has received this year with rueful ambivalence. “In the last six months, I’ve been getting an award a week,” he says. “You’re made to feel that this is a lifetime achievement award, and you haven’t finished living yet.”


Paralysis And Growth

A year earlier, that was not so certain. Graves’s annus horribilis started innocuously enough, with a sinus infection that was more of an annoyance than a cause for alarm. In February 2003, Graves and three members of his team headed to Frankfurt for Ambiente, the giant international consumer-goods fair. Graves, a notoriously indefatigable 68-year-old, seemed uncharacteristically tired. His traveling companions chalked it up to a combination of a nagging head cold, the rigors of covering the vast show, and jet lag from an itinerary that had sent him ping-ponging around the globe.

“Michael cleaned me out of Sudafed,” says David Peschel, a product-design director who had come along. Graves’s doctor had given him two vials of medicine for the trip: one an antibiotic, the other a decongestant. Thinking it was just a double supply of the same medicine, Graves took only the decongestant. His symptoms eased, but the infection remained. After Frankfurt, Graves continued his breakneck travel schedule, stopping to see a client in Geneva before heading back to New York.

Five days later, back at his office in Princeton, his condition worsened. “He was sitting at a meeting that Monday morning with his head in his hands, and said, ‘I’ve got to go home,’ ” says Karen Nichols, who is one of the firms’ principals. “That was only the second time in 17 years that I’d heard him say he didn’t feel well enough to work.”


At home that night, Graves, who lived alone, phoned his neighbor to ask if she would call an ambulance and take care of his dog. Doctors at the Princeton hospital were baffled by his symptoms, which included a low-grade fever and excruciating nerve pain in his back, a sensation Graves has described as a dentist’s drilling a tooth without novocaine. Nichols and Susan Howard, another partner at the firms, spent the night at his bedside. “During the night, he kept screaming in pain,” says Nichols. “No amount of painkiller could do anything. It was awful.” At about 3 a.m., Graves said he couldn’t feel his legs. Given all the morphine and Demerol he had received, the doctors were not especially alarmed. But by morning, they realized there might be real paralysis.

Graves was rushed to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where the paralysis was temporarily arrested. He was there for six weeks before being moved to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, a clinic in West Orange, New Jersey, that had served as the rehabilitation facility for fellow Princetonian Christopher Reeve. The exact cause of the infection has never been resolved — it may have been transverse myelitis, a viral infection, or bacterial meningitis. In April, Graves’s condition began to worsen, with the paralysis creeping perilously up his spine and threatening to compromise the use of his hands — and his ability to draw. He sought out a doctor in Miami who specializes in spinal-cord injuries, and who stopped the paralysis from spreading. Since the first of the year, Graves has been in and out of various hospitals as his health has waxed and waned. Most recently, he has been back in the office, supervising projects, accompanying his architects on new business pitches, and making the occasional trip to New York to collect an award, or to Minneapolis to visit Target.

Stunningly, while their founder and guiding spirit has been sidelined, Graves’s firms have had banner years. In July 2003, the product-design practice was spun off into a separate business, Michael Graves Design Group. Over the past 18 months, it launched more than 100 new pieces for Dansk’s tabletop china line; rolled out its first collection for Delta Faucet Co., a line of 60 products, including kitchen faucets and showerheads; produced 19 area rugs for Glen Eden, the carpet company; delivered two collections of chairs and accent pieces for furniture maker David Edward; and created more than 100 products for Target, ranging from a souped-up toilet brush to a dartboard. In fiscal 2004, total retail sales for the group’s products are estimated at $174 million, up from $95 million in 2003. Meanwhile, the architectural practice, Michael Graves & Associates, has won a variety of new projects, ranging from a library in Beacon, New York, to a hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, to a courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, and business schools for both Temple University and the University of Miami (a deal Graves brokered from his Florida hospital bed). It now has more than $800 million in projects under construction or on the boards.


“Despite Michael’s illness, the practice has had its most expansive year ever,” says Nichols. “We’ve always relied on the diversity of our services and product lines as part of our business model, but this year we tackled new categories and made a commitment to growing new areas of the practice.”

Graves has no plans to retire, but six years ago he arranged a succession plan, naming six partners whose average tenure at the firms is 20 years. When crisis arose, the plan had an unexpected dry run. “When Michael got sick, the partnership immediately stepped up to the plate,” says Linda Kinsey, senior director of product development.

Communication had always been a challenge, given the firms’ four separate buildings, two of them Colonial-era houses. The partners dispatched regular email messages to the staff, reporting on Graves’s condition, and held small meetings in the individual studios to plan client communications and coverage of the work. While the firms did not go public with the news of Graves’s condition until he entered rehab, clients were quickly informed, and the architecture practice’s principals divided up Graves’s responsibilities — from lectures to client visits to accepting awards — to make sure the public face of the company remained visible and vital.


Back in the studios, Graves’s decades-long investment in teaching his staff his distinctive aesthetic paid off. “We can all kind of channel Michael,” says Peschel, “but occasionally, I’d have one of those ‘What would Michael do?’ moments. That’s when I’d wish I could put something in front of him, because I knew he would do something special that I couldn’t do on my own. Luckily, we have people here who have been around so long that you could still get there, even if he wasn’t available.”

In many ways, Graves’s absence made visible a structure that was already implicitly in place. “Our discipline is inherently collaborative,” Nichols says. “It never was a one-man show. Michael never thought of it like that.” Indeed, he didn’t. Graves recalls that painter Chuck Close, whose paralysis is so severe that he has to hold a brush between his teeth, called while he was in rehab. “He said, ‘You’ll have to get used to people helping you more and sharing your very personal work,’ ” Graves says. “I didn’t say anything, but that’s what we already do. That wasn’t an issue for me — that sharing.”

Once Graves had entered Kessler, about an hour’s drive from the office, teams were organized to visit several times a week, bringing food, providing companionship, and rigging up Rube Goldberg-like creations to overcome the facility’s design flaws, such as out-of-reach light switches and maddeningly distant drawers. Graves is a notorious workaholic and famously private man; his colleagues are the closest thing he has to family in the immediate area. Twice married, he has lived alone since the mid-1970s. His daughter, Sarah, and three grandchildren live in Calgary, Alberta; his son Adam lives in Indianapolis; his 18-month-old son, Michael Sebastian, lives with the child’s mother in Florida. His brother, Tom, lives in southern New Jersey.


When Graves was well enough to work, caravans of designers laden with sketches and prototypes began regular treks between Princeton and West Orange, and Graves began working his magic again. Typically, a design team will develop sketches. Then Graves will work with them to add his special touch. “Whether it’s turning your drawing upside down, or doing some little sketch on it, it’s this great alchemy thing that happens,” says Peschel.

Graves is often characterized as a witty designer, and certainly, in many of his designs, that is true. The whistling bird at the tip of his Alessi teakettle, a Bakelite steak knife with a shark’s-grin blade, the 19-foot dwarves holding up the pediment at Disney’s corporate headquarters in Burbank, California, come to mind. But wit is just one point on the spectrum of emotions that characterize Graves’s designs. They are also comforting, playful, charming, inspiring, and evocative — in short, unfailingly human. “It’s really about intuition,” says Nichols. “Michael insists that you be able to understand intuitively how to use something, or approach something, simply by looking at it.”

Smiley Toasters

Waiters are clearing the remains of the chicken lunch when Ron Johnson, the man behind the widely heralded Apple retail stores, steps to the stage to deliver his keynote speech at the seventh annual Success by Design Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. Johnson reaches for a mouse and clicks on the first slide of his presentation. Instead of a shot of a gleaming Apple store, a black-and-white photo of Graves beams down. The tribute is apt; a year earlier, Graves was to have delivered the same keynote when he got sick.


But this is not just another lifetime-achievement tribute. Prior to joining Apple, Johnson had been a Target vice president. He was the first to suggest that Graves try designing products for the discounter. And that collaboration has taught Johnson the true power of good design.

“In the mid-1990s,” he tells the assembled designers and educators, “products based on design didn’t exist for everyday people with everyday budgets.” Johnson had long admired Graves’s Alessi teakettle, the world’s best-selling designer teapot at the time. But its $150 price tag limited sales to the well-heeled. When the two finally met, Johnson suggested that Graves try designing for a broader audience. He jumped at the chance. His biggest frustration, Graves told Johnson, was that his students at Princeton couldn’t afford to buy his products. “I would love to democratize design,” he said.

While good design at low prices is now fairly ubiquitous, the concept was radical in the mid-1990s. “People thought he was crazy,” says Johnson. “A lot of designers thought he was selling out for a quick buck, that he would reduce design quality and make design trivial. But because of how well his products were executed, it did the opposite.”


Not only did Graves prove that it was possible to deliver great design at affordable prices with the homeliest of objects, but also that design could be a differentiator in the marketplace. Johnson drives the connection home for his audience: “What I learned from Michael Graves is that by creating a great teakettle, we could create an identity for Target that set it apart in its industry.”

If the collaboration with Graves changed Target’s standing in the retail industry, it also expanded the public understanding of the range of things that architects can do. “With his work for Target, Michael reached out into an area where angels fear to tread — or architects dream of being transgressed,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Stern says the move prompted plenty of sniping in the more pompous architectural circles. “You stick your neck out, and somebody tries to chop it off,” he says. “But Michael is very good at these smiley toaster things. It was a brilliant bus-iness move, and he did a great job.”

For Graves, designing everything from a toilet brush to an office tower is not dilettantism. It’s an outgrowth of a philosophy that doesn’t discriminate between what’s homely and domestic and what’s grand and public. “In the last couple of years, we have taken it upon ourselves to say, we would like to do furniture, we would like to do wall coverings, we would like to do fabrics and faucets and everything,” says Graves. “And we have. All those things are part of our domestic view of the world.”


“You Have To Let Go”

Despite Graves’s medical problems, sources at Target say his firm never missed a beat during the year. “To be honest, it’s actually gotten a little better,” says Steve Birke, a VP and general merchandise manager at Target. “Because he hasn’t been traveling overseas as much on his architectural commissions, Michael’s staff has had more face time with him.”

To make Graves’s life in rehab more comfortable, Birke personally sent him a DVD player, and the company donated a set of Graves-designed games for the facility’s recreation areas. To accommodate the designer’s restricted mobility when he returned to work, Target helped select videoconferencing equipment for the firm’s conference room, enabling Graves and his staff to meet with their Minneapolis clients without having to travel.

The architecture side of the business has been a little more difficult to handle. If clients are hiring a firm for a multimillion-dollar project, they often want to see the man behind the brand. With projects ranging from a retail and restaurant building on the Bund in Shanghai to that courthouse in Nashville, Graves used to be on planes more than 50% of the time. Tweaking drawings takes you only so far. “Most clients have been understanding, but the ones that are difficult are where they expect personal services and for him to go to meetings,” says Nichols. “The name on the door is the one they want to see.”


Graves himself acknowledges that some in the industry have used his disability to their own advantage. His voice trembles slightly as he describes an encouraging note from architect David Child. “It was the sweetest letter,” he says. “Other people might say, ‘Michael can’t design buildings anymore. He’s always in the hospital; he’s not in the office. So you don’t have to consider him.’ That’s how cutthroat it is.”

Still, the architecture practice seems to be thriving, with a variety of new commissions. Graves is both delighted and chagrined. “I’ll tell you what’s got me worried: when these guys go out to an interview and I’m not there — and they get the job!” he chuckles.

But for such a private man, the personal limitations of his disability may be the hardest thing to bear. He has had to install an elevator and wheelchair-accessible shower in the exquisite house he designed two blocks from his office, and adapt to the constant presence of a live-in caregiver. He confessed to The New York Times that he now wishes that he had a life partner.


One bitterly cold Saturday this past winter, he confides, he found himself at home with no commitments, no company. “A lot of people are hands-off on me now, because they don’t want to bother me,” he says. “Nobody dropped by. I realized I either have to get used to this privacy, or I have to make plans if I don’t want to be stuck. It’s a funny in-between time for me.”

The loss of mobility has also been difficult for Graves to accept. He rails at the size of his wheelchair, which maneuvers like a bulky SUV and, he feels, sticks out. “It makes you such a visual guinea pig, to be in a big thing like this,” he says. He is on a quest to find a smaller version. When asked if there’s something he’d still really like to do, the answer is simple: He’d like to walk.

“I feel like I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done a year,” Graves says quietly. “I know what it’s like. Now let me back.” He pauses, and his voice gets softer, “I looked up the other morning and said, ‘If He would give me just 15 minutes a day, a half an hour a week, a day a month.’ But you have to let go.”

The Simple Life

The party at the Chelsea Art Museum looks like a typical downtown fashion-crowd affair. The bar is teeming with Cosmo-swilling partygoers and a CBS-TV crew roams the room with lights and a boom. Along the walls, arrayed on pedestals like precious objects from a lost civilization, are the latest products from the Michael Graves Design Group’s spring collection for Target: a cocktail shaker with a green olivelike rubber stopper, a Yahtzee game, a mantel clock. Tables and chairs are set in the corner, ranged around board games, including a Monopoly set with Gravesian-themed game pieces: a toaster, a clock, a blender, a teakettle, and hotels that look suspiciously like a Graves-designed foreign ministry in the Hague.

Graves, resplendent in a tweed jacket and blue shirt, happily surveys the scene from his wheelchair, while the stereo blasts, “Give Me the Simple Life.”

The event is a combination party, celebrating both the publication of Phil Patton’s book, Michael Graves Designs the Art of the Everyday Object (Melcher Media, 2004), and the fifth anniversary of Graves’s partnership with Target. John Remington, a Target vice president, hushes the crowd and raises a glass of champagne for a toast to the collaboration: “To an incredible icon of architecture and design — and a really good friend.”

Then Graves takes the mike and, in a voice that begins a little hoarse then becomes increasingly strong, speaks for five minutes about the importance of design. For a moment, the events of the past year fall away, and Graves is once again in command, the center of his design universe, the master of all he surveys. It feels good. The applause ends, the music starts back up, and Graves drums a happy beat on a copy of the book in his lap.

I think back to our conversation in Princeton. On that afternoon, as Graves, visibly exhausted, prepared to go back to his house, I asked what message he would want people to know, based on his own experience with a disability.

He looked at me then with a mixture of frustration and resignation. “There should be no downtime,” he said. “Sitting in front of the tube isn’t in the cards anymore. You’ve got to be doing something. That’s how I would plan my life if I got my legs back. I’d make use of every f—ing minute.” Then he rolled away.

Fast Take: Out of Commission: Guiding a Company When the Leader Is Sidelined

  1. Come to a consensus about how the crisis will be handled and communicated, internally and externally.
  2. Communicate as quickly as possible with your staff to maintain morale. Give them honest, coherent messages (and updates) and let them know what they can tell others.
  3. Speak personally with clients and professional colleagues. Convey how the firm is handling their projects, whether or not that has changed.
  4. If relevant, keep the public informed. Provide forthright and consistent updates, including information about the sidelined leader and how the firm is continuing to conduct its business.
  5. Keep the leader in the loop. If illness is the cause of the crisis, balance ongoing productive involvement in the practice with the understanding that health is the number-one priority.
  6. Manage expectations going forward, both inside and outside the firm. Explain new policies, if any, in the conduct of your practice.

Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.