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Christopher Muther

Right on target

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / October 1, 2009

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It would be inaccurate to say that architect Michael Graves was the first to democratize good product design for the masses. That distinction can be traced back to the Bauhaus school and Walter Gropius in the 1920s. It is fair to say, however, that Graves is the first person to successfully combine high design with affordability and, in the process, he’s revolutionized the way we see everything from soap bottles to toilet brushes.

For those who are not avid shoppers or have never set foot in Target - are there any of you out there? - Graves is responsible for designing a line of teapots, coffee makers, dish drainers, and other household goods for the big box retailer that stand in stark contrast to the army of beige home goods that once meekly filled store shelves. Target approached Graves 10 years ago and asked him to design a line of houseware products. In the process, Graves sparked a design revolution.

“Not to sound weepy about it, but just because people have less money doesn’t mean that they appreciate good design any less than people of means,’’ Graves said.

Graves is in Cambridge tomorrow night to give a talk at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The talk is free and open to the public. For those who appreciate good design, this lecture is the equivalent of Radiohead inviting fans into the studio to discuss how the band writes songs. Ten years ago, when Graves started creating for Target, high-end design had yet to creep into chain stores. This was long before Karl Lagerfeld designed a collection for H&M or Vera Wang dreamed she’d lend her name to a line at Kohl’s. Now these collaborations happen with the frequency of traffic tie-ups at rush hour.

What is refreshing about the 75-year-old Graves’s attitude toward his inexpensive designs is that he sees these products as a natural extension of his architectural work. This may come as a surprise for some, but his primary profession is architecture, and he has designed several important hotels, museums, and university buildings. When I point out that it seems rather ambitious to design buildings in addition to a full cadre of products, Graves points to architects such as Charles and Ray Eames, or Frank Lloyd Wright. These were architects who not only designed their buildings, but often the furniture inside.

“It’s what architects did,’’ Graves says casually. “At some point we were supposed to stop, but I never did. It just seems logical to create both the space and its contents.’’

Despite the fact that Graves had dabbled in product design much of his career - most notably for Alessi - the collaboration with Target came as a result of his architectural work. He was commissioned to come up with aesthetically pleasing scaffolding for the Washington Monument when it underwent a major renovation in the late 1990s. Target happened to be a major donor to the renovation project. Graves’s scaffolding was such a success that it stayed up for several more months once the renovation was complete. Executives at Target took notice.

“After the Washington Monument project someone at Target said ‘We’ve been ripping off your designs for 20 years, it’s time we got the real thing.’ When I asked them why now, they basically said it was a way to set them apart from the competition,’’ he recalled.

Graves never encountered a backlash when he brought inexpensive design to the masses. In fact, he was criticized for designing a hotel for Disney, but never for his Target work. He certainly doesn’t see designing the products as his legacy, but he’s quite proud of the work he’s done for the chain.

“Would I do it again if I were asked? I would say yes 100 times over,’’ he says. “To bring design to Americans is really something to be proud of, I suppose. I was getting tired of people saying if you want good design you have to go to Japan or Italy. I think we’ve proven there’s plenty of good design here.’’

Michael Graves gives a talk tomorrow at Piper Auditorium in Gund Hall at Harvard University from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The event is free.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.