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Michael Graves, 1934-2015

Four years ago this month, the architect, designer and academic, Professor Michael Graves died aged 80.

In Britain, he’s probably most famous for his iconic bird whistle kettle, made by Alessi with his signature mid blue handle and maroon red bird flying out of the spout. Designed in 1985, this has  consistently been one of Alessi’s best selling products for thirty years,. He had become Professor of Architecture at Princeton university in 1962 and held that post until 2001 and last year was honoured when the Michael Graves School of Architecture was established at Kean University in New Jersey.

He was also an architectural power house at the Disney Corporation designing the Burbank California corporate headquarters building in 1986 and hotels in Walt Disney World, Florida and in Disneyland Paris. He also designed the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on Witherspoon Street in Princeton and its simple, clear and easy to read clock has been made into a watch. The numbers are large but his close attention to detail can be seen in the way that the colour of the tip of the crown (or winder) matches the watch face and the stitching of the leather strap again picks up the colour from the face.

This precise but never fussy attention to detail made him a much sought after designer of functional household objects that always had an elegant sculptural quality. Art critics may have been a bit snooty about his prolific output especially when he master minded huge ranges for the “Target” discount stores in America and later for the J C Penney department stores.  But the public loved his designs and bought them in droves.

Over ten years ago, he had come to Europe on one of his many visits and with a pastel coloured sweater draped around his neck like a scarf, he complained of having picked up a cold on the trans Atlantic flight. In fact he had contracted meningitis and ended up hospitalised and then partially paralysed. Wheelchair bound, he used this new found predicament to advantage and improved the designs of wheelchairs, hospitals and access to them and disabled veterans’ housing.

Sometimes called one of the founders of “Post Modernism,” he was inspired as much by classical Italian Palladian architecture as Mickey Mouse’s big ears and was never afraid of being amusing as well as functional. Indeed his kettle has a broad base so the water can be heated quickly and the handle is kept well away from the spout so doesn’t become too hot to handle when boiling. 

His many buildings all over the world are similarly filled with practical solutions whilst retaining an elegance and completeness. He was, however,  ultimately most proud of the fact that his professional practice that he opened opened over 50 years ago is still going strong and the “family” that works there will undoubtedly continue to produce lasting designs that improve the way we live.

Michael Graves. 1934 – 2015.

9093 Kettle for Alessi