If your Michael Graves-designed toaster from Target makes you happy every morning at breakfast, you have George Washington to thank.
The project that brought the world-famous architect and designer to Target started out as an in-your-face gesture to the Minneapolis-based retailer’s Arkansas competitor. In 1996, Wal-Mart sought to site a new shopping center in Virginia, on the spot widely thought to have been the place where the cherry tree that young George slew once stood. Local activists were outraged.
Wal-Mart eventually backed off, but Target — sensing a public relations opportunity — donated $100,000 to preserve the historic farm and upped the ante by agreeing to fund the scaffolding surrounding the renovation of the Washington Monument. Looking for an attractive solution to a potentially ugly construction project, Target executives asked Graves for help.
Graves’s solution was inspired: a blue mesh sheath that covered the monument, with a pattern that mimicked the masonry underneath. It was such a success that Target considered re-using the scaffolding to construct a kind of shadow monument in Minneapolis. But, more importantly, the collaboration led Ron Johnson, a vice president in charge of home décor, to approach Graves about designing for the retailer itself.
It was a game-changing partnership. In league with Target, Graves and his team were able to bring great design to a wide audience. Five years later, Graves has designed over 800 products for the company, ranging from toilet brushes to free-standing pavilions.
We spoke with Graves at his company’s offices in Princeton, New Jersey, about the early days of the collaboration, defining success, the importance of the mid-range, where good ideas come from, and the future of housing.
Fast Company: Before the Target partnership, your reputation was primarily as an architect. Had you done products for the home before?
Michael Graves: I had done a teakettle for Alessi. When we began that collaboration, one of the first questions I asked Alberto (Alessi) was, “What’s a home run?” I wanted to know, if we made something good, if he’d keep it in the line. He said, “What do you think it would be?” I said one teakettle per day per store. He said, “If you do that, you will own the company.” It was, in fact, one teakettle per week per store. That’s still a lot of teakettles. About 2 million of them have been sold — at about $125 each.
FC: What did Target have in mind when it approached you for the first project?
Graves: Ron Johnson took me to lunch and said, “What would you like to start with? Maybe something iconic that’s not a teapot. Like a toaster.” So we made a list of half a dozen things. But by the time the line rolled out, we had 160 products in our first year.
FC: The line debuted at the Whitney Museum. Were you worried at all about what its reception would be?
Graves: 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. 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.
FC: What was Target’s reaction?
Graves: What encouraged me the most was not the launch in New York or how people talked about the product, but that the next Monday morning Target’s chairman called and said they wanted another whole collection immediately. If they’d sat on it a couple months to see how the numbers were going, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But instead, they had such faith that this was going to work that they said, let’s start now.
FC: What kind of challenges did you face in attempting design at this level?
Graves: People don’t realize it’s just as hard to make a cheap thing as it is to make an elite or expensive thing; in some cases it’s harder. We’re always fighting — in architecture or object making — budgets. Since Target’s done so well with it, other people have realized they should get other designers to create things in the middle ground.
FC: Prior to signing you, Target buyers were accustomed to cruising the market looking for products. How did they adjust to having their first in-house designer?
Graves: At the beginning, we went to a big housewares show in Germany with all the buyers. And I asked the question: “Why are we going to Frankfurt?” They said, “We want to see the trends!” And I said, “Why did you buy me, then?” They couldn’t figure out what I meant. I said, “Who made these trends? Designers, right? That’s what we do.” They had a hard time getting that. They were used to going to vendors in Frankfurt and saying, “We like this plate, but make the blue thing red, and change the pattern.” That’s the way they used to do it before designers.
FC: Were there any projects where you were particularly at odds?
Graves: I wanted to do a chess set. No designer had done one since the Bauhaus. So we took the idea to Target and said, “This is a great opportunity.” They really had a hard time with it and said no. Finally, I said, “Humor me.” So we made the pieces, and the wood for the board was great, and we designed a drawer with storage for checkers. Then a buyer called and said. “Everything’s fine, you win, but we want the pieces to be colored.” I said, “Chess doesn’t come that way. Chess comes in black and white.” And they said, “Well, could you make the black a kind of blue-gray? Or could you it make it mulatto black?” And I argued and argued and argued. And the letters started coming back and forth, with color chips in them. And we’d have to send them back. At some point somebody gave up and said, “OK, you can do it in black and white.” It really started this enormous trend. Now everybody’s got their own chess set, even MOMA.
FC: Clearly, you seem to have forged a happy working relationship since then, and paved the way for the company to bring in other designers.
Graves: Target’s a horizontal company. Unlike Martha Stewart with Kmart, they discourage any one designer from taking over. They don’t want the story to be three-fourths one person and one-fourth someone else. And that’s why Isaac Mizrahi and other people have been added. And some designers do a good job, and stay, and others aren’t there any longer. If we’d been hard to work with, we wouldn’t be there anymore either.
FC: You’ve made all these things that go in houses. When are you going to make a house?
Graves: A few years ago, a Silicon Valley client asked us to look into modular housing. Two months into it, the economy fell apart and the project ended. But we still thought it was interesting to look at how you could make an affordable house, and then, if you could make an affordable house, how do you make an affordable room? Renovation is so expensive because it’s so small. So we thought if you could make a prepackaged room, you could turn renovation into a commodity market and get the savings.
So we drew up some ideas for little pavilions and showed them to Target. They thought it was a great idea, and asked if we could find a really good manufacturer. So we found Lindal Cedar homes, which could make all the components, and already had a dealer network. So now, in one fell swoop, you can go on the Target web site and order a room. And you can change the color, and the roof, and customize it for your house. For us it was a great test balloon as to what we could do in the housing market.
We really believe that housing is where retail design was 15 years ago — that it could benefit from the same injection of new energy and that you actually could bring good design in at a price people can afford.
If we had scads of dough, we could put up several hundred houses in Trenton and Camden to show people what a little square could look like. We’re doing few houses in Trenton now, but they won’t make a dent. If you could do a lot, that would be fabulous.
FC: Speaking of fabulous, your own house is pretty cool. What kind of reaction do people have when they see it?
Graves: Well, I love books, but my library, which is quite extensive, is filled. So for the past 10 years I’ve been stacking books on the floor against the wall. So when tour groups come through, they say, “Oh, look, dear. It’s really OK to stack books!”