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Designer Michael Graves on Moving to J.C. Penney

The architect and industrial designer on ending his partnership with Target and jumping to J.C. Penney
Designer Michael Graves on Moving to J.C. Penney
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Ron Johnson was at Target 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.