The Monumental Impact Of Michael Graves

It all started with scaffolding on the Washington Monument. 

Ron Johnson, then chief home merchant at Target, sponsor of the Washington Monument restoration during the late 1990’s, and architect Michael Graves, who had designed the monument’s restoration shroud, hatched an idea to bring Graves’ post-modern, whimsical style of design to Target’s customers.

For The Masses

Graves, whose tea kettle for Alessi already was considered an icon of haute housewares design, obliged. 

Sales history might show the Michael Graves Design collection at Target never soared to the heights originally imagined. But housewares history most certainly will record how the Michael Graves collaboration was, nonetheless, a definitive centerpiece for Target’s Shabby Chic transformation; and, beyond that, how it paved the way for the housewares business as a whole to make aspirational, leading-edge design more accessible to the masses.

Michael Graves’ housewares design wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it made consumers pause and take notice of Target and of housewares in general at a time when retail consolidation threatened to homogenize big-box retail shelves.

If the late Sam Farber’s Oxo peeler a decade before Target’s Michael Graves Design debut heralded a new era of intuitive industrial design for housewares, Graves, who passed away this month (see story, page 8, in the March 30 issue), showed Middle America that household tools of unconventional artistry and character are within reach. We can only imagine the heavenly brainstorming between Graves and Farber today.

Transformative Visionary

Graves blazed a trail for upper-echelon designers to put their name and face to everyday housewares. What previously was viewed by the high-priced design community as a step down had become a potentially lucrative step forward.

Graves remained a transformative visionary to the end, undaunted by a paralyzing spinal cord infection. Johnson turned to Graves again, to the surprise of few, to help anchor the reinvention of J.C. Penney that ultimately imploded.

Design Bravado

The Michael Graves name might not resonate as loudly with many consumers as some of the fashion designers, chefs and personalities to have staked their claims in housewares in recent years. Even if people don’t recognize his name, they recognize the benefits of the design bravado his work inspired across the housewares business.

Graves lives in his buildings, in his products and in his contribution to resetting the boundaries of mainstream product design.

The housewares industry should forever be grateful for that idea hatched by Graves and Johnson as Washington’s tallest landmark was being restored.

The impact of Michael Graves on housewares was, indeed, monumental.