Michael Graves: Beyond Kettles

The well-known designer discusses his many creations and notes, "I stayed true to what I thought was good design no matter who it was for"

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As an architect, Michael Graves is well known for designing many prize-winning buildings, from The Humana Building in Louisville, Ky., to the Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif. But it's in his design of household products that he has made the biggest impact -- he has revolutionized the way the world views something as simple as a tea kettle.

In 1985, Graves designed a modern stainless-steel tea kettle with a whimsical red singing bird on the spout for the Italy's Alessi. The kettle marked the renaissance of the architect as interior and product designer and has since been featured in numerous movie sets. Alessi has sold more than 1.3 million of kettles since its launch. Twenty years later, Alessi has introduced a special 20th anniversary edition, available exclusively at Barneys store, packaged with two bird-shaped whistles, one transparent and one in dark red, like the original. The special edition runs through Sept. 1.

But story doesn't stop there. In 1999, the architect moved from the rarefied world of $135 kettles and entered the public consciousness by designing products for chic big-box retailer Target (TGT). Instead of losing his cachet as a high-end designer, Graves became bigger -- Target took his name into every household and gave him a new kind of mass recognition.

The move was a huge success, and Graves once again transformed how people viewed everyday products. He has created over 800 designs for Target, ranging from a tea kettle (of course) to toilet brushes. His collections (plus the Philippe Stark, Isaac Mizrahi, and other high-design Target collections that followed) have also pushed competitors like Wal-Mart to sign similar deals with British designer George Davies or Kohls to ink deals with upscale beauty lines like Estée Lauder.

Graves' work was interrupted two years ago when an untreated sinus infection led to paralysis of his legs. But he's back now and working on various projects, including one on improving design of wheelchairs and other medical devices. Graves, who taught at Princeton University for 40 years, spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Pallavi Gogoi on the eve of his Alessi kettle anniversary launch. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: Tell us the story of your first kettle for Alessi.


It wasn't the first kettle that I designed. Prior to that, Alberto Alessi had asked a dozen architects to design a sterling silver tea service -- with a teapot, a coffee pot, sugar, creamer, a spoon, and a tray. Our brief was that it didn't matter if it didn't work and cost wasn't the issue. It was a promotional project, not a commercial enterprise, and was going to be showcased in museums. And the coffee and tea piazza, as mine was called, received a great response. It was wonderful to walk into the Whitney museum and see all these objects on the first floor.

Q: Is that what led to your famous tea kettle?


Alessi had already done a tea kettle with Richard Sapper that was quite successful, and he quickly realized [the] designer cachet in such products. He came to me with a design brief that was very different from his previous brief for the coffee and tea piazza, where we could be artistic and whimsical. Now he wanted me to be pragmatic. He wanted to update the Sapper tea kettle with functionality -- it had to whistle but had to come with a removable option.

It had to blow water faster than anything else in the market, and we designed that by having as broad a base you can have that fits into a stove top. Alessi came loaded with plans on minute technical requirements on how the joints would come together in the kettle. I mean while the sterling silver teapot did have a few buyers for $25,000 a piece for a limited edition, this new kettle was not going to be as exclusive and had to be more realistic for more mass production for about $125 or so apiece.

Q: Did you mind being told what to do?


I learned in architecture that you have to have a real plan. You have to have a client, they have to have distribution, start-up money, and have a vision of where it's going to go. All this has to be settled before you start, or else your work is just a story. So, going back to the Alessi tea kettle, a design had to be developed with a functional object.

Q: But why do you think that particular kettle took the world by storm?


I once got a postcard from a French poet who wrote -- "you don't know me but I'm always very grumpy when I get up in morning. But when I get up now I put the tea kettle on, and when it starts to sing it makes me smile -- goddamn you!" That's what happened when we first designed it -- we got a lot of mail.

Architectural and product designs have a narrative capacity -- you can start to tell a story about them and imagine a lot of things. The Alessi bird kettle has a personality, with its simple geometry. Its dots on the bottom are red to signify heat as it's placed on the stove. And the shape of the grooved handle, which is blue where it was cool to touch, and, of course, a bird whistles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of a bird?


I was looking for something that sings and came up with a bird, decided I didn't need to be modern about it and just did a real bird. I also knew I could make it big enough to take off when it was cool if people desired.

Q: Are tea kettles your thing?


We have designed a dozen tea kettles for Alessi since the first one. Somebody once asked me, "Aren't you tired of designing kettles?" -- because I did one every year or two. But architects love to rethink a project -- that's what we do. If something is successful, like a house or a kettle, in this case, it's a great compliment when someone wants another one.

Q: And then you made more kettles, albeit for the mass market, when you designed for Target. Is that what made you a household name?


Target made a big deal out of it -- there were 24 feet of my objects with my picture on top. I was on TV, in the Super Bowl, on the backs of buses, everywhere. If you want the public to know, that's what you do, and that was part of why I became very popular.

It was very different from the upscale Alessi client, making a product for a [Target] customer who went into the store to get a T-shirt or a coat and, on the way out, picks up a kettle. I do the same: The last time I was there, I picked up my bottle opener.

Q: Which one is your favorite Target piece?


I know that's not something that people like to do -- identify a favorite. But I do. And my favorite is the garlic press. I think it's beautiful as an object. But the awkward part of it all is that I don't use it much because I'm allergic to garlic.

Q: I understand that since you've been wheelchair bound, you have noticed how difficult it has been to navigate around. Will you design products that might change that?


We're doing a whole line or products for a medical parts companies called the Durable Medical Equipment. I think there are about 30 products for that collection -- like mobility equipment with grabbers, a cane, a chair, and other things that would make life easier for people who need it.

Q: Will they have your signature slate blue?


The piece that you've put your hand on right now is model plastic and doesn't have any color yet, but we're looking into that.

But I use my own experience and what I see to make a better product. The other day, when I was in therapy, I saw an elderly man walking with his walker and his wife -- he made one faulty step, and he loses control of his walker and falls down.

I plan to address the situation of someone who is starting to fall backwards and how he can use the walker to support him, and include a third and fourth handle that will help a person in different positions, like offer support while sitting down.

Q: Your work at Target really changed the public's view of how products need to be designed. Would you agree?


Absolutely. I stayed true to what I thought was good design no matter who it was for.

I have architects write to me and ask me: How do you -- and what do you do to -- design the magic thing? I answer that very carefully. It's not necessarily about what you do, but the clients you do it for. You should write to Target, not me.

The Alessi relationship and the Target one has broadened the role of architects in society and broadened the concept that design belongs to everyone.

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