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Hard Choices

Designer Michael Graves on Moving to J.C. Penney

Designer Michael Graves on Moving to J.C. Penney

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Ron Johnson was at Target (TGT) in 1997 when I was invited to design the scaffolding they sponsored during the renovation of the Washington Monument. By chance, he looked at a sketchbook I had, which had a lot of small objects for the kitchen. He said, “You really have something here. Let’s talk.” I loved the challenge of making good design affordable. It’s what Wiener Werkstätte, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright did.

We went from half a dozen objects in 1997 to more than 2,000 when the partnership with Target ended last year. When we had started, we got a whole 24-foot space and were the only outside designers. Then they added a larger stable of designers such as Isaac Mizrahi. Target eventually added 500 in-house designers. Little by little, we became the last outside designers standing. We became competition. That’s not a favorable position to be in. Instead of having a Michael Graves aisle, they began putting the toasters with the toasters, and tea kettles with tea kettles. It was harder to find our statement. It was a good time to go.

When Ron Johnson moved from Apple (AAPL) to J.C. Penney (JCP) [as chief executive officer] in 2011, I thought he’d reach out. Quite frankly, I was waiting for the call. I rarely went to J.C. Penney before that—I wouldn’t have liked it very much. But Ron and I had talked periodically over the years. When he came out with the genius bar at Apple stores, I wrote to say I thought it was genius. He called pretty soon after starting at JCP to say, “What I want to do is make America’s favorite store.” He clarified: “Not America’s favorite department store.”

I liked the idea of helping this store start over. And we’d get a shop within a store. The design challenge now is different. You’d smell a rat if we repeated the products we did for Target. I’m not interested in doing that. At JCP, we’re at a higher price point. We’ve done a toaster that I love—its finish, its shape. It looks like a piece of bread. The Target one was white plastic. This one is polished stainless steel.

With every project you pick the challenge and the person. [Johnson’s 15-month run has seen declining sales and a falling stock price.] I have great faith in Ron. He’ll get it done. I think this will be very big in a couple of years. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a 100-year-old company. To completely renovate it is going to take time. It always does. —As told to Diane Brady 

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