Michael Graves Exhibits at VCA

Towers & Teakettles, the Virginia Center for Architecture exhibition on display until March 31, 2013—in conjunction with a curated conversation February 7—features the architectural, consumer product, furniture, and healthcare equipment designs and artwork of AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, FAIA.

During the opening of that exhibition January 17, Michael Graves & Associates Managing Principal Karen Nichols, FAIA, narrated a series of tours for guests and students in attendance at the VCA, 2501 Monument Avenue in Richmond. Following is a synopsis of Nichols’ remarks. Notes from her comments are in italics. Locations of panels are keyed in bold, which can be followed using the sketch to the right of the exhibit layout.

Democratization of Design display.

A1-A8: On the left hand side as one enters the Long Gallery is the Democratization of Design exhibit, which, in addition to the panels that offer a chronology from 1979 to the present of the Michael Graves & Associates (MGA) designs of myriad items sold at a range of retail outlets is a case of actual objects, including the whistling-bird and other whimsical teakettles, a folding-board chess set, a telephone, a toaster, a clock, and a wide variety of watches.

MGA incorporates five areas of design at every scale of its work: architecture, interior furnishings and fittings, industrial design, graphic design, and branding. And inter-disciplinary collaboration is paramount to the firm’s teamwork process.

Nichols, left, and VCA Executive Director Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA

With furnishings and appliances, as it so happened, I [Nichols] was an early Michael Graves client. It was Knoll, however, that first began his industrial designs as they put together their showroom. The Graves-designed Knoll chairs were an early loss leader for them. However, because of the design approach that anything the firm does is going to be the best, that mindset turned around quickly to one of profitability.

With the Alessi tea set, there was already a collection of miniature-building items available from various designers, one of which produced only 69 sets and sold for about $25,000. That showed that this might be a good direction for MGA. And function was a part of the thinking. Instead of a tea set that only looked good, the thinking was to design a tea set that looked good and boiled water fast. And beyond that superior functionality, its operation should be intuitively obvious. In the 1980s, it seemed, architects were design rock stars. But you had to go to a museum to buy these kinds of objects. Taking a cue from product designers in Italy and Japan, MGA entered the mass-produced market.

Branding and identity went hand in hand with that kind of mindset. One result was packaging and gift boxes. The next step was cleaning products, all the way from soap dishes to a toilet brush and holder.

Visitors enter the VCA Long Gallery.

It was in 1998, during the Washington Monument scaffolding project [as noted below] that MGA began working closely with Target. We quickly developed 200 products for the store, and in 15 years they ended up marketing 2,000 MGA-designed products. Target and MGA have since mutually agreed to move on separately, but the legacy will likely last for a long time. It was through the firm’s work with Target that MGA developed its ongoing desire to create architecture and objects that are equally stylish, witty, and high-quality.

Michael Graves also worked with the concept of designing games, such as the chess set. And MGA continues to monitor the retail results of their products to understand how people relate to these elements.

Dansk is another high-design product distributor with which MGA is working.

B: Just beyond panel B, which is on the right as one enters the Long Gallery and introduces the exhibit, are three Graves-designed chairs (two are at left in the photo above): for Sanders, there is a dining room chair from 1988 and for Sunar there are a side chair from 1981 and a lounge chair from 1982.

C1-A, C1-B, and C3: These panels show the hospital room furniture and Prime TC Patient Transport chair Graves designed for Stryker, with whom MGA has been working since 2009.

Michael became paralyzed in 2003, although his ability to draw and create continued strong. With that expanded understanding came a great deal of inspiration (not the least of which was a keen desire to get out of the hospital, since he couldn’t help thinking at the time: “this place is so dismal; I can’t die here”). The firm continued its concentration on the democratization of design but with a transformed focus on universal accessibility.

MGA started into the medical equipment market. Elements such as common morning preparations became the focus of his creativity to make common items more functional and more beautiful. Graves has also been working closely with the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board [more commonly—and simply—known as the Access Board, it is the body overseeing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and President Obama appointed Graves to the Access Board on February 4, 2013].

Low-vision perspective is another object of his interest, since that is another non-obvious aspect of using a wheelchair.

Accessibility is not just a matter of ease of use. It is also a matter of intuitive understanding of how one uses an item … even a toaster. Elements such as the shape of a room take on a new meaning. For instance, the MGA offices are in separate Colonial-era buildings in Princeton, N.J. The spaces were too tight, we found. And one element of Michael’s new understanding of that is that the firm as a whole now has a much better understanding of how people use the building around them.

Signage is another part of universal accessibility. Everyone wants to know how to get from here to there, and that means people at all levels of vision and accessibility. That is the basic Zen of what MGA is doing.

Another expansion of this concept is the partnership with Stryker, which includes chairs and furniture for hospital rooms. For instance, the over-bed table is ubiquitous in hospital rooms, so they became a focus of substantial observation by MGA on how they are actually used.

We found that, typically, the undersides of these tables are never cleaned. The level for adjustment is hidden in a hole that is both confusing and, to some, disgusting. Hospital-room chairs were used mostly as a place to put sheets. Nurses were hurting their backs getting patients into and out of chairs.

So MGA simplified the over-bed table and made them visually softer. We also redefined the storage strategy for the over-bed tables and accompanying rolling cabinets. We included trash receptacles with the storage units. And we created a chair that put the “nose over the toes” for simplified access and egress. As it turns out, nurses are crazy about these advancements.

The Stryker transport chair for moving patients around the hospital will be on the market in May. They just launched the product marketing the second week of January 2013. It may be expensive to devote several years to rethink designs that have been in use for 70 years or more. But Stryker finds it valuable and is willing to make that investment. These chairs can handle up to about 400 pounds. The buttons to make adjustments are easy for attendants to foot-activate, and they are intuitive. Plus, because Stryker is committed to a five-year guarantee for the chairs, they are cost-effective over their life cycle compared to the traditional wheeled chairs.

MGA is also currently working on ambulatory care and assisted-living design, which includes aging in place and wellness design, both of which have a strong market demand. The aim is to create more livable and more beautiful places. This is a mission and a passion. The casinos we’ve designed, such as in Singapore, are definitely fun, but this has a social value that transcends that work.

C2-B: The St. Coletta of Greater Washington school for children and adults with disabilities, built in 2006.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington

St. Coletta of Greater Washington is near the old D.C. Hospital. Its façade, as designed, is striking but of basic forms. The children at the facility may not be able to communicate  well verbally, but we’ve seen that they know how to draw the building.

The main halls organize the children cognitively. They feel both excitedly engaged and calm at the same time, and they know where to go. The accessibility, color, form, and air make it mentally navigable as well as physically. And the children were extremely receptive to Michael the first time he visited. Perhaps that was because that happened to be the first time he visited this project after he was able to get out and about following his paralysis, and he was using a wheelchair.

C2-A: The Wounded Warriors Homes at Ft. Belvoir, from 2011.

The Wounded Warriors demonstration houses at Fort Belvoir, Va., are designed for people who are working toward re-enlisting in the Army despite their loss of physical abilities (such as limbs) or the psychological uncertainty of PTSD. How do you design for PTSD? Some elements are private discussion areas where veterans can talk with fellow vets out of earshot of relatives or others who wouldn’t understand. There is abundant light, accessibility to the outside, and bathrooms that work for them.

E1-B: On entering the west end of the adjacent Great Hall, one is looking straight ahead to a panel that displays both the Museum of the Shenandoah, in Winchester, built in 2005, and the Washington Monument scaffolding put in place to accommodate an extensive monument restoration from 1998 to 2000.

It was during the Washington Monument scaffolding that MGA began its partnership with Target. The concept of democratization of design within MGA came from the desire to inspire general public appreciation that something functional—almost mundane—could also be beautiful. As a continuation of that success story, the extensive collection of project development photographs the monument scaffolding design team compiled has been very useful to the people working to restore the monument following the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that jarred the region on August 23, 2011.

As an interesting sidenote, fireworks displays that occurred over the years that earlier restoration work was ongoing made it necessary for the scaffolding mesh to be flame-proof.

E2-B: The Humana Building in Louisville, Ky., from 1985.


The Humana Building is notable, beyond its aesthetic distinction, for being civic minded in the way the tower and plaza look to the street. This project started the firm into a joint focus on interior design and the design of architectural products; in particular, lighting. The building establishes a relationship with its urban context. It also had early sustainable-design elements such as a geothermal mechanical system. The high-quality workplace included a rooftop plaza that is accessible to the general public. In a sense, the complex established a sense of Main Street for Louisville.

E2-A: The U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, from 2005.

The U.S. Department of Transportation building is also set well within its context and includes four areas for future use. A design/building project, it came in under budget with a design that is both functional and environmentally sensitive.

E1-A: The William Bryant Annex of the U.S. Courthouse in Washington, from 2006.

The courthouse annex, with its atrium is making visual and pedestrian connections in a part of D.C. that has long lacked those connections.

D: Murals Graves painted in 2009 for the interior of the Hotel Michael at the Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.

Drawing by hand has long been an essential part of Michael’s creative process. Since he began practicing in the 1960s, he has often painted murals and executed other artwork for his building interiors. These “archaic landscapes” often consist of simple geometric assemblages. He created many murals for the guest rooms and public spaces for the hotel his client opted to name in his honor. On display at the VCA exhibit are two studies that he later painted in full size for the Hotel Michael lobby.

F1-F6 and G: A collection of panels highlighting the Sentosa waterfront, the Hotel Michael, Festive Hotel, Crockfords Tower Casino, and Hard Rock Hotel, all in Sentosa, Singapore, and spanning from 2009 to the present.

The Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore, with its casino and related amenities—a hotel, casino, theme park included—was 3.5 million square feet. The waterfront development had a maritime museum, which highlighted the city’s role in the spice trade. The Omanis were involved. And construction meant the importation of sand, since it isn’t an abundant resource in Singapore.

The client decided to name the hotel Hotel Michael because MGA was designing everything inside and out. With rooms of 35 square meters, everything is small yet meticulously detailed.

Panels of the Sentosa, Singapore, projects.

The Festival Hotel ties in as well, with space for children to play. It is high-energy.

For the Crockfords Tower, the casino was meant exclusively for foreign visitors, primarily Chinese, since Singapore citizens are not generally included in the client base for such facilities. So the design team put the casino below so that there were still accessible family-friendly amenities above that people from Singapore could enjoy.

The design of the casino provides a strong gaming room experience, with a variety of different gambling spaces. So if one’s luck runs out in one area, he or she can move to a different surrounding altogether and continue to search for a lucky space.

The Hard Rock Hotel contains a large ballroom, shopping, and lots of indoor activity areas that allow people to stay out of the often-rainy Singapore weather without feeling stuck indoors.

There are a lot of other projects that MGA is currently working on as well, including the Seaplane Center and other projects in China, the St. Regis Hotel in Cairo, the Grand Statue and Complex in India. All evoke the sense that more is more.

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