NEW YORK — To some extent, Michael Graves’ household products for Target reflect the dream of the Bauhaus movement realized. How that all came about was the subject of much discussion during a talk with Paul Goldberger at Parsons the New School for Design.
Having designed 300 buildings and 1,800 products for various companies, Graves laughed at the reality that he is as known for a Target toilet bowl brush as for anything else. While there’s no question his creations carry fine design with a certain sense of whimsy to the masses, he shied away from the suggestion that he is a brand.
“The smartest definition of a brand was by Alberto Alessi. He said, ‘For me, it’s not a marketing ploy, except when somebody sees it, they can expect the highest quality from that object,'” Graves said at the session last week.
Graves’ interest in product design was heightened after he, along with a dozen architects, created tea services for an Alessi exhibition in 1985 that continues to travel today. “We wanted to have something that would confuse people about whether it was high art or product design,” he recalled.
Graves’ tea kettle with a blue bird form for a spout was an immediate hit. He recalled how Alessi told him 40 of his tea sets had been sold and that the Italian company was tired of making them.
“Forty sets at $25,000 — you had a good royalty deal, I hope,” Goldberger said.
“No,” Graves replied.
“That’s why you switched to Target,” Goldberger quipped.
“Royalties at Target are much better. It’s not great, but it’s much better,” Graves said.
Target typically orders “a first load” of 80,000 units of one of his designs, and if it’s really popular, reorders may follow, Graves said. “Occasionally, something will last for a few years, like our toaster. Our toilet bowl brush outsold any product at Target. Who knew it would land on the cover of Time? My mother just passed and she never would have believed it.”
Graves remembered how he was invited to dinner at the Reagan White House, since the mother of his girlfriend at the time was an old friend of Nancy Reagan’s. After dinner, a burly Marine ushered Graves into another room, where the first lady was waiting. She told him, “We’re not allowed to purchase something like your tea service for Alessi, but we could have it donated.”
Graves said he explained to her, “Well, it’s really quite rich. I can’t afford one.”
“Oh, too bad,” Reagan said. “I thought I could talk you out of yours.”
The architect offered to request one from Alessi and did just that on his next trip to the company’s headquarters near Italy’s Lake Orta. Graves said Alessi told him, “Tell Mrs. Reagan that I’m pleased to hear she liked the tea set very much and tell her I said…” and then, bending his elbow, flipped a bird of another kind.
The flood of editorial coverage of Graves’ success with Alessi led to commissions from Steuben, Tiffany & Co. and others. Graves, who employs more than 100 people in his New York and Princeton, N.J., offices, said he often hears from clients, “We want you to do for us what you did for Target.”
But interest doesn’t always lead to contracts. He recalled receiving an inquiry from AT&T in Italy years ago. The company had recently arranged for Giorgio Armani to design a phone that signaled an incoming call with sequential illuminating lights, but not a sound. The company asked Graves to design an elite phone, and mentioned in passing that an everyman phone was also in the works. Graves told the AT&T executive, “I’m not interested in elite design, but I am interested in making an everyman phone that looks elite. And then she left,” Graves said, to much laughter from the student-heavy audience. “They won’t tell you that in class, but it happens.”
The designer said Target first approached him to design scaffolding for the Washington Monument’s restoration, a project the mass merchant underwrote. That alliance led to a half-dozen Target products, including the toaster, and “then we went on and on” to even include his design for a prefab house for Target. He noted that initially the retailer had major ownership in an overseas sourcing company, and now Target owns it. When reviewing prototypes from that sourcing company, Target executives are presented with the one they requested and one that is 20 percent less expensive to make, Graves said.
His Target products are made within a year, and sometimes in six months. And in most instances, “customers can’t buy it once it’s gone,” Graves said.
The designer has no plans to delve into fashion, however. “When you see Ralph Lauren Home, Armani Home and now we’ll get Isaac Mizrahi Home, you think, ‘Enough.’ What do those guys who do dresses know about what we do? But if I say that, I shouldn’t mess in their sandbox, either.”
On a more serious note, Graves, who is in a wheelchair, mentioned how many public places, including hospitals and airplanes, are not properly equipped for the disabled. He aims to correct some of those shortcomings through an alliance with Drive Medical Design & Manufacturing, which specializes in durable medical equipment.
“When the [airplane] ride is over and you’re the last one off, you say to yourself, ‘I want to get out of this chair and walk off.’ But that’s not going to happen yet.”