Posted by Christian Helgesen, AIA
I usually don't write about architects, and if memory serves me I can probably count the number of such articles I penned on one hand. There was a manuscript on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an Art Nouveau designer and architect of the Glasgow School of Art. A place that I briefly flirted with in attending, but having to domicile in the damp and rainy climate of Scotland wasn't exactly high on my list. There was also Frank Lloyd Wright that iconic figure of which I spent a full semester in studying his biography at graduate school.
Which brings me back to the question of why write about Michael Graves? I never met him in person, or attended one of his lectures, but still this was one architect who I consider may have influenced me the most in terms of my own journey into design, but then again maybe it was just the simple truth that we both lived and worked in the small town of Princeton, New Jersey.
In 1980 I was employed by the Hillier Group of Princeton, a large corporate architectural firm that I often considered an international style of office with a host of designers from around the world. It was frankly, the complete opposite of the boutique practice of Michael Graves located just across town.
I can remember that both firms were equally in the news and in magazines of the time, but the Hillier projects most often featured were large in scale and real, when compared to what many would say that Michael Graves only penciled artful drawings on yellow tracing paper. The Hillier Group was truly the place to be, even if their portfolio wasn't rocking the world of architecture, like the more unique but rarely built theories from Graves.
I still recall one my colleagues at Hillier by the name of Peter Nielsen that was really into the Gravestonian form of design. Peter could produce a sketch that at first glance you would have thought came from the hand of Michael Graves himself, and on one such project, he was given the opportunity to produce a rendering for a new bank facility.
His design was no doubt heavily influenced by Graves’s ideology for its simple facade and a freestanding colonnade that functionally reached out to the drive-up banking windows. Of course this was not the Hillier design language, nor did they recognize that architectural design was on the brink of a new evolution. In fact after an internal office review Peter's unique concept was quietly shelved. Not soon after, Peter left the firm and joined the Michael Graves practice where I lost touch with him, but the social media site "LinkedIn" shows he is still employed by Graves today, some 34 years later.
In the late 1980-90s as I designed our family house and homes for clients, I was absorbed into the postmodern intellect of Graves. His ability to make reference to past architectural motifs without duplicating the detail I found as an interesting point of view. Graves's capacity to use scale, repetition of elements and building massing were refreshing for their simplicity.
I'll miss Michael Graves and his artful play on even the most common of objects, like his famous whistling teakettle manufactured by Alessi. He was one of the first architects to bring awareness to the public of what design is all about and that good design can even be affordable. A point that he demonstrated with his popular line of everyday products that are in the Target stores. Graves was quoted as saying..."there is no insignificant object that cannot be designed well", and when you really think about it, I'm sure you'll agree.
Epilogue | I find it interesting as I look back on how these two Princeton firms took divergent courses in the coming years. In 1982, with the design of the now landmarked Portland Building, Michael Graves sealed the direction of postmodern architecture for the next several decades. No longer was he known for just theories on yellow tracing paper, instead the Graves firm earned ever larger and more prestigious commissions within the corporate world.
The Hillier Group also flourished where it eventually ranked as the third largest corporate architectural office in the United States. In 2007, the Hillier Company merged with RMJM to become the third largest architectural consortium in the world where they are headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland with offices in seven countries.