On March 4, I met with Michael Graves to discuss his decades-long career and the life he had built in Princeton, N.J. Eight days later, the internationally acclaimed architect and designer died at age 80. The piece is Graves’s final tribute to his beloved town, but it is also my appreciation of Michael Graves, who shared his talents and whimsy with the world but always kept his heart in Princeton.
If American architect Michael Graves documented his projects using the pin-the-destination-on-the-map technique, the world would resemble a pointillist painting. Colorful dots would cover large swaths of Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe, the United States and Disney World.
However, step closer to the global canvas and you will notice a cluster centered on Princeton, N.J. Two points marking the Michael Graves Architecture & Design offices on both sides of Nassau Street. Several more on the university’s campus, around town and in the residential area. And, most prominently, a giant red thumbtack on Patton Avenue indicating his home — and existential renovation project — of more than 40 years.
“Princeton has a library, a deli and two theaters. It’s a place where if you need a loaf of bread, you can walk to get a loaf of bread,” Graves said recently. “I’m sure there are other towns that I’d love equally, but this a marvelous place to live.”
In 1962, Graves, who celebrated his firm’s 50th anniversary last year, chose Princeton as his home town. Or, more precisely, Princeton chose him.
“The university drives the town,” he said. “You overhear people in Starbucks and they’re probably not talking about the Phillies game.”
After a two-year academic program in Rome, the Indianapolis native returned to the United States and applied for teaching positions at several East Coast institutions. He wanted to stay close to New York City, where he had lived as a starry-eyed upstart after receiving a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard.
Princeton the university offered him a full-time faculty position. Princeton the town provided him with an opportune location 60 miles south of Manhattan.
Since moving to Jersey, Graves has gained international acclaim for his buildings (the Portland Building in Oregon was a biggie) and whimsical lifestyle products (over 2 million Alessi bird-whistle tea kettles sold). His name appears in scholarly books that cover his field from the time of Mesopotamia.
With such success, Graves could have left Princeton for any ultra-design city in the world. But he didn’t. And on a wintry March day, he helped me understand why.
Before my trip, he sent me a list of his favorite places in Princeton. His roundup included 21 picks divided into three categories: attractions, dining and shopping. He later admitted that he had edited out several other suggestions.
Mind you, the town is only 18 square miles.
Tom Moran views buildings as sculptural forms and Michael Graves as an artist. So the chief curator didn’t have to rewrite any mission statements when he mounted an exhibit of the architect’s work at the Grounds for Sculpture museum in nearby Hamilton, N.J.
“Michael deals with the human principle of an object or space,” Moran explained. “There is a connection on every level.”
“Michael Graves: Past as Prologue,” which closes April 5 after a six-month run, provides a “This is Your Life” overview of his career. The show fills two floors of an entire building, plus the mezzanine level of another gallery.
The exhibit starts at the crossroads of Graves’s academic and professional life. A photograph captures the lanky young man sprawled on a sidewalk in Rome, sketching on a large sheet of paper. During his time overseas, he produced hundreds of drawings, four of which are on display.
“My life changed in Rome. I had never been to Europe,” Graves later told me of the early 1960s experience. “I didn’t understand what architecture or history was until I went to Rome.”
Though he harbored a strong affection for Rome, his portfolio is covered with Garden State stamps. In fact, Graves is so prevalent in the region, I unknowingly stayed at a Holiday Inn adjacent to manufacturer Miele’s U.S. headquarters, which his firm completed in 2002. Unfortunately, I had views of the parking lot, not his monument to sturdy German appliances.
“He saw American industrial landscapes, especially in decay, as a kind of Roman Forum,” Moran said. “He was certainly inspired by his immediate landscape.”
In the early 1980s, Graves peeled off from the pack of Le Corbusier acolytes with his Portland Building, which housed offices for municipal services. The revolutionary design — bold color! flared columns! barrel shapes! ornamental art! — lowered the blinds on the austere glass-and-steel buildings dominating modern cityscapes.
“There is a lot of humor in his buildings, and his color tablet provokes a warmth and sense of light and joy,” Moran said. “He broke out of modernism.”
Graves chafed against the yoke of defining labels. He didn’t refer to himself as a postmodernist, although he probably would have accepted the classification of humanist.
“Modern architecture is based on the metaphor of the machine,” he said. “My architecture is based on the human psyche and attitudes. A sheet of glass can’t do any of that.”
Nor can a pane of glass transport you to an “Alice in Wonderland” tea party.
I first became aware of Graves through his fanciful tea kettles featuring songbirds, whistles and spinners. (Over the years, he has designed for Alessi, Target, J.C. Penney and most recently, Kimberly-Clark.) The Grounds for Sculpture exhibit flung open the cabinet doors to his wider collection of, oh, every imaginable thing: watches, alarm clocks, coffee pots, pens, spatulas, earrings, chairs, ceiling fans, cheese plates, toasters, walking canes and dishwashing brushes.
“His architectural language covers the whole range,” Moran said, “from the smallest to the largest.”
To baby-step into his aesthetic, the museum’s gift shop stocked several Graves items, including mugs, notecards and an Alessi tea service set with a platter, sugar bowl and creamer. The bird-whistle kettles sold out weeks ago.
In 2003, Graves contracted a virus that caused paralysis from the chest down. He used a wheelchair to get around, with his nurse, Min Lin, always at his side. His condition, however, didn’t slow him down.
“I roll, and she walks,” he said of his best friend.
Starting from his home, they would often head to campus and the Princeton University Art Museum, a vast repository with more than 92,000 artworks.
“The permanent collection is very good,” he said. “I missed the Matisse cutouts in New York, but that doesn’t happen in Princeton. I see everything.”
The pair would nip through campus, a showcase of collegiate Gothic and Gothic revival styles, to Nassau Street. On the main drag, they might browse the titles at Labyrinth Books or detour for sustenance: mushroom pie at Conte’s Pizza, frozen hot chocolate at Halo Pub or chocolate ice cream at Thomas Sweet. (Graves conceded that the dining options have substantially improved since his arrival.)
For year-round fresh air, they would head to the Princeton section of the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. In wintertime, residents skate on Carnegie Lake. In warmer seasons, Princeton rowers practice their strokes and fishermen toss their lines for bass and carp.
During our visit, a Nordic swirl of ice, rain and snow kept us indoors. We met in a room that was packed floor-to-ceiling with his homewares. His business partner, Ben Wintner, asked if I wanted tea. He served it in — but, of course — a white mug with silver lines that Graves had created for Target in 2001.
Graves was dressed in Ivy casual: tan wide-wale corduroy pants topped by a Polo rugby shirt as green as a pine tree. He laughed easily, refuted when necessary and shocked his guest with his mischievous wit.
Our conversation occasionally strayed to destinations beyond Princeton. He has traversed the globe many times, including more than 100 excursions to Japan. And he was never all work; he usually added a day to explore.
Graves was game to play a round of “What is your favorite city for . . . ”
Rome swept most of the categories, including ancient architecture, museums/culture, food, inspiration and comfort. For best hotel, he picked Hotel de Russie in . . . Rome. For modern design, he rattled off Rotterdam, Netherlands; Amsterdam; and New York City. For nachos, he went maverick with the Atlanta airport’s food court.
“They must have every kind of pepper,” he said fondly. “They’re so good, you dream about them.”
We eventually returned to the topic of his home town. I asked him to help me better understand why he stayed.
He shared a story about how most residents walk on the northern half of Nassau Street because the sidewalk is wider. However, many people dart through traffic to Thomas Sweet on the opposite side. Concerned about the precarious passage, the community gathered together and decided to install a pedestrian crosswalk. Now everyone can safely traverse the road for an ice cream cone.