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Michael Graves Design built a $1 billion housewares business. Now it’s back for more

One of the most famous kitchenware designers of the past century is back. But instead of partnering with Target, Michael Graves Design is going it alone.

In 1997, a train ran late. The architectural firm Michael Graves Design (MGD) was in Washington, D.C., working on a restoration of the Washington Monument. Target executives were in town while planning their first store in the city, and the retailer was actually subsidizing the monument work as part of the agreement to come into D.C.

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Amtrak was running behind schedule to take the Target execs home. So the team at MGD welcomed execs into their studio to share some industrial design work they’d begun to supplement the architectural business. Target execs were smitten and signed MGD to be the company’s first major design partnership.

[Photo: courtesy MGD]

Like that, Michael Graves became a name known across America. Items such as the Spinner Whistle Teakettle, a riff on Graves’s hit PoMo kettle for Alessi, became available exclusively at Target, distinguishing the retailer as the chic alternative to Walmart. Over nearly two decades, MGD launched thousands of housewares products at Target (including 10 different tea kettle styles!); five years ago, around the time Michael Graves died, the firm finally ended its partnership with the retailer. Target now designs tens of thousands of products with hundreds of designers in-house each year. As for Michael Graves Design: The company has been quiet about its new retail strategy, until now.

This March, MGD will launch its own housewares line, produced by industry partners and sold at any retailer that wants to carry it. Because of how MGD signed deals, Target and other retailers had only licensed the option to sell these products, while MGD retained exclusive rights to all designs it produced—a library of over 5,000 products, which have grossed over $1 billion in revenue to date.

[Photo: courtesy MGD]

That means items you recognize from the heyday of MGD housewares, such as the whimsical teakettle and rounded ice cream scoop, will go back on the market as permanently available icons of design  (a lot of these items had a limited run). One particularly eye-catching item from the archive that I’d never seen is a wine decanter, originally available in very limited quantities, which features a blue glass bird on the inside. This decanter doesn’t just make you chuckle; it’s functional. The wine pours over the bird, which agitates it and oxygenates the liquid. But once the wine level is high enough, the bird disappears—its job done.

[Photo: courtesy MGD]
On top of the classic rereleases, the team at MGD will be supplementing its archives with new designs for new products.

The dozen or so designs we’ve seen so far vary greatly in approach and aesthetic. Some are sheerly utilitarian, and minimal, such as a series of steel trash cans, and a wireframe fruit basket, that could easily appear in Target’s own Made by Design line. Others look simple at first glance but tease a very particular intent: Note how the metal storage canisters have glass at the bottom but not the middle or top. Why? No matter how full they are, they’ll still look stylish on your counter. And finally, there are objects that bridge the gap between utility and playfulness, such as a cake plate and tiered serving tray, which feature an expressive, curvy stand that folds flat for storage when not on display.

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[Photo: courtesy MGD]

This balance of approaches is entirely strategic: MGD doesn’t want to be the housewares company for statement pieces alone, and a dozen products that spun around your kitchen like tea kettles would be obnoxious en masse. Some objects are designed to be produced cheaply—something Graves himself never shied away from—without polarizing tastes.

“Launching this line, we’re looking to establish broad distribution. . . . Some items will be [filled] with character, others more utilitarian,” says Ben Wintner, managing principal at the firm leading industrial design. “It’s rare that a product wins a design award and is really commercially successful. There is a sense when it’s responding well to the ‘design community’ it may not be enough for people in the mainstream to have confidence to buy it.”

So some items will look like the MGD you know. Others will look like the MGD that snuck to market without you ever noticing. Wintner clarifies that some objects should disappear entirely, anyway. “We look a lot at where something lives when it’s not in use. If it’s on the counter, maybe it’s more minimal. In a cabinet and brought out, maybe you can add more character, be more bold,” he says.

In any case, MGD plans to make an even wider splash than ever before, now that it’s distributing without any retailer-specific limitations. There are only about 1,800 Targets globally, after all, and Wintner believes that having more retail partners will “be really big” for future sales volume—all while hedging the firm’s bets by not investing in any single retail partner during the uncertain age of Amazon. But this plan also means that MGD is going on its own and will rely on its industry partners to sign retailers one at a time, like any other company with a product to sell. So the Target teakettle is coming back to market again. But where will it be sold? That’s still to be determined.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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