Your Life your connection to The Boston Globe

Alterations in the architect's plan

Partial paralysis required him to reconfigure his home, but Michael Graves keeps on designing

PRINCETON, N.J. -- There was a time, for architect Michael Graves, when designing buildings for people with disabilities was just another interesting design challenge. It meant complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was about door thresholds, wheelchair passage width, grab bars.

It's still an interesting challenge for Graves, one of the country's best-known architects, the man generally credited with elevating the taste of the masses by designing hundreds of stylish household products for Target, from toasters to toilet brushes.

But now it's also personal.

Graves, who turns 70 next month, contracted a spinal infection in February 2003 as the result of a virus and is now paralyzed from the waist down. After almost a year in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, he remains bisected, he said, into a man for whom a "good body meets bad body." Ironically, the man who's been at the forefront of American architecture and design for more than 30 years can no longer access one of his own office buildings.

Yet despite disabling pain that can be "absolutely horrible," he continues to work, travel, design, and preside over two thriving businesses and more than 100 employees -- Michael Graves & Associates, an architectural and interior design practice, and Michael Graves Design Group, a product design firm. The companies are busier than ever, designing buildings from Manhattan to Shanghai, and the home products just keep rolling out -- a new line of Graves kitchenware for Dansk in the fall, a wireless computer mouse, and speakers for Target in July.

In an interview at his home, Graves said he has faith that he'll walk again, bolstered by a breakthrough in paralysis research at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, cofounded by his surgeon, Dr. Barth A. Green.

"Michael's chances of naturally recovering are almost zero at this point," Green said in a telephone interview. "But the chances of him being able to walk in the next five years because of this research is, I'd say, not possible but probable."

Meanwhile, he had no choice but to make his house wheelchair accessible. This was no small matter, considering the occupant: Graves's home, which he calls "The Warehouse," is more than just a place to live. It's an architectural statement, a laboratory for his designs and products, a repository for his collections. It's the sort of place that gets called, in architectural vernacular, a "residence," not a "house." It is a home much analyzed by architectural scholars searching for inspiration and meaning in every niche and column.

Few ever observed that the place wasn't exactly wheelchair-friendly. He couldn't get up the concrete spiral staircase. The master bath might have had exquisite marble floors and chrome finish fixtures, but he couldn't shower in it. Nor could he navigate a wheelchair around the showpiece oculus, a circular three-story aperture in the foyer designed, one imagines, to summon celestial inspiration.

What was a design guru to do? Design solutions, naturally. Of course, this isn't straightforward in a home in which aesthetics are as important as accessibility. This is a house that makes jaws drop, a house that was profiled in Metropolitan Home, and apparently so impressed the writer she described the room adjacent to the living room as the "O-my-god" library.

It hosts an incongruous amalgam of O-my-God objects -- a Le Corbusier chaise longue; Italianate busts; Etruscan pots; mid-19th-century Biedermeier furniture -- and Target products, designed by The Man himself, with their trademark clean lines and cerulean blue trim.

In 1985, Graves designed a conical teakettle for the Italian firm Alessi -- which eventually led to other product commissions, including hundreds for Target -- that instantly became an icon: sleek, stainless steel, and with a sense of humor: a whistling red bird perched on the spout, like the Flying Lady hood ornament on a Rolls Royce. His house has some of Target's character, too. It has elegance, weight, relevance, and whimsy, subtly embedded -- the Venetian Carnevale masks hanging above a toilet, for example, or the elegant bird's-eye maple colonnaded bookshelves lining the library that turn out to be fake. (The columns are made of PVC pipe painted to look like birds'-eye maple.)

They were more economical that way, said Graves, who seems amused by the ruse. "I'm a man of the people here!"

The Warehouse didn't start out as a house at all. Set back from the street in a residential neighborhood, it was built by Italian stonemasons in the 1920s as a furniture storehouse for Princeton students. When Graves saw it in 1970, it lacked plumbing, electricity, and heat. "It was like a big garbage dump back there," said Karen Nichols, Graves's business partner for 27 years. He bought it for $30,000 and has been working on it for 34 years.

With its terra cotta-colored exterior walls, L-shape, and formal gardens, it has a Tuscan farmhouse feel to it. Inside, there are Classical elements, such as Doric columns (though the license plate of the car in the driveway reads "Bauhaus"). The colors are restrained, the lines spare.

Yet throughout the house, the alcoves and surfaces display mementos of his career and personal life -- photos of himself with three presidents (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton), his 1999 National Medal of Arts, pictures of his children. Graves, who has been divorced twice, has a grown son in Indianapolis and a daughter in Canada. He also has a 2-year-old son, Michael Sebastian, who lives in Florida with his mother, a former girlfriend.

It has proven to be a most adaptable house, easily yielding to the challenges of wheelchair accessibility.

The oculus problem was solved, for example, by eliminating the balustrade and surrounding circular guardrail, and inserting a piece of glass flush with the floor, so Graves could navigate the wheelchair around it.

"It was as if the house had been made for those additions," Graves said. "We simply added another layer on the outside for [an] elevator and converted a closet to a roll-in shower. It was easy. The house remains basically as it was but with some embellishment."

Embellishment? The elevator has to rank as one of the more glorious lifts in the repertoire of offerings for the disabled. Graves designed it while he was still hospitalized, with the help of his associates. The wall panels are checkered with squares that alternate between blue and bird's-eye maple (real, this time). The large shower room -- an expanded version of the original bath -- has elegant 3-by-6-inch blue-glass wall tiles; an alcove to house a replica of a Pompeiian oil lamp in his collection; and a pair of wide rainhead shower heads.

He said he is happy with the renovations "and I was particularly happy to get it done so that I could be living back at home."

But clearly, this remains an unhappy situation for Graves, who lives with his dog, a congenial white Labrador named Sara, and is aided by a fulltime assistant and his close network of associates. Green, his surgeon, said Graves "has not accepted his paralysis." He adds: "We haven't asked him to. We are asking him to cope with it."

Though Graves looks youthful and robust, albeit weary after a two-hour interview, he's obviously frustrated with the limitations imposed on him: There is the fact that he can no longer play golf; the slowed travel schedule; the laboriousness of using a wheelchair, which nicks and dents the woodwork of his house; the affront of having devoted his professional life to improving American design, only to be confined to a series of hospitals where design for people with disabilities was barely considered.

"None of them was designed for people like me," said Graves. "You take your wheelchair into the bathroom -- the mirror is above your head, you can't reach the faucets. It's almost like they are going, `Ha, ha, ha, gotcha!' It's a mean trick."

The experience has been eye-opening. Though he considered issues relating to accessibility before he became paralyzed -- for several years, for example, he's been working on a Washington, D.C., charter school for children with severe disabilities -- what he didn't understand until recently was the extent of the impediments to accessibility in public spaces.

"I became immediately and painfully aware of what I could reach and not," he said -- "the window blinds, the light switches, the sink faucets -- things one really needs to reach to function in a space. That's not to say that various spaces don't make provisions for people in wheelchairs, but they're not so obvious or prevalent as I had thought."

"You can imagine what this is like for someone like me," Graves said in the breakfast room/solarium off the kitchen. "If you're retired, if you play with your grandchildren, if you drink coffee and read newspapers, maybe it wouldn't be as hard. But I don't live a sedentary lifestyle. I think I'm 37. For me, it was just drawing, travelling, designing, giving interviews. I was in bed all last week. I think, `OK, I've given this a year and four months. Let's go!' "

But if there is pain here, there is also potential. As often as possible now, when he is lecturing or giving interviews, he talks about the importance of accessibility issues.

"Remember that ADA is a civil rights issue, not a building code," he said. "It's about accommodating people with disabilities."

He sees his role as "raising the consciousness of accommodating people with impairments of many kinds, mental or physical. This isn't just a message for architects," Graves added. "It's for the public at large."

related story
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives