10 Minutes with Michael Graves at the JCP Home Launch

10 Minutes with Michael Graves at the JCP Home Launch

By Kelsey Keith
Last week, JCPenney (now known as JCP) launched several collaborative home collections from renowned designers. We sat down with architect Michael Graves to chat about designing for large retailers, Habitat for Humanity housing, and his upcoming Dwell on Design appearance.

Form, function, and a reasonable price: Architect Michael Graves's new pieces for the JCP home collection are the apotheosis of these three assets working together in harmony. Intuitive slow cooker? Check. Bookshelf clock? You bet. Nesting trivets and stacking bowls for less than $25? Why not! On the occasion of Graves's product launch, he—along with several other design personalities from Jonathan Adler to Sir Terence Conran—alighted last week onto New York City to introduce design-driven collections that go hand-in-hand with JCPenney's new look. We took the chance to chat with Graves about his industrial design process, upcoming projects in the realm of universal design, and his imminent keynote address at Dwell on Design 2013

Architect and designer Michael Graves (top left, along with JCPenney CEO Mike Ullman) in front of his homewares collection for the recently in-flux retail giant. Check out all the products in his collection here.

Can you fill us in on the Habitat for Humanity project you’re working on in L.A.?

It’s a prototype, meaning the first one will be built in Los Angeles (so they tell us). But they will be built in other places too, which are similar to that kind of site. For this one, it was required to have a garage, which is really silly in a house. I say that you don’t need a garage in Los Angeles, but they say you do so [people don’t] leave their junk out in the street.

Is the house also meant for a suburban application? Where people drive cars?

The purpose is really to find a more handicapped-accessible, universal design out of this house. We had done two houses for Wounded Warriors, for people coming back from war, and they were a huge success for the amputees and burn victims who moved in. The idea here was to find a house that would work for not only all the things that Habitat for Humanity stands for, but also for the elderly, for the arthritic, for the obese, for people with problems like I’ve got—so that’s what we did.

How did you incorporate universal design while keeping costs low?

The cost is minimal, but one of the things that you want in a universal design is to make the plan as open as you can…and to still have walls around bedrooms and that sort of thing, and to keep the corridors wide enough so the wheelchair can do a 360 in the corridor. So that makes the corridors a little wider [just under five feet wide], which costs a little more money, but not very much. Given that this is all donated services and we’re just talking about a little bit more material, it’s a good deal.

How does universal design factor into the home goods you’ve designed for this JCP collection?

Well, anything that we’ve designed for JCP will work in that house because they’re priced so well.

You had a long collaboration with Target, and then switched retailers. How is this collection different?

The major difference is that this collection is shown in the store in a dramatically different way. Whether we work for Bloomingdale’s or Target, we would have a tea kettle in the tea kettle department, and we would had a toaster with the toasters, and everything [I design] would be separated. But here all our work is together. All of Conran’s work is together; all of Adler’s work is together; they are shops within the store. It’s how the department stores in Japan work now.

You were appointed by President Obama to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. Can you tell us a little bit about what that will involve and who you’ll be working with on that project?

I think I have a four year term—

Like the President!

Just like the President! He and I are like this! [Laughs] I’m called a "public member." Each of the cabinet members puts one of their staff on the Access Board, so we have somebody from education, transportation, so on. I’m the opposite—I’m Joe Q. Public, there to represent access to buildings that are federally funded. If you get federal funding, then you must comply to the Access Board Standards, which are a little more stringent than ADA’s.

On a city level, things like the subway aren’t very accessible at all.

I can’t take a cab.

So why are there not more regulations in place on city-level?

It’s a money issue. It’s always money. At least in San Francisco, we can take the subway [BART] to Berkeley…so it’s improving.

We are very excited to have you at Dwell on Design in about two weeks’ time. What are you going to be addressing there?

My subject is a talk I’ve given before, but I’ve remodeled it for Dwell. It’s called "The Grand Tour," which is based on a junket that young architects, painters, and sculptors did in the 18th and 19th centuries. They started in Egypt, went to Greece, and then to Italy: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Pompeii, which was being dug out and excavated. So, they would draw what they saw. I’ll talk about universal design, too, and I might have to mention JCPenney’s!

For more Graves, shop his new collection for JCP and visit Dwell on Design in Los Angeles this June to hear him live during our keynote address.


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