Michael Graves spent the last 12 years of his life in a wheelchair. But the spinal cord infection that left him paralyzed from the waist down did not keep the renowned architect from continuing to create innovative designs for buildings and household products. In fact, say his former colleagues at Michael Graves & Associates on Nassau Street, being wheelchair-bound served as an inspiration.
“When Michael became paralyzed in 2003, he realized he had an incredible expertise as an architect and designer to make a major impact on the world’s healthcare,” said Karen Nichols, an architect and principal in the firm. “A few days before he died, he was in Washington participating on the United States Access Board that President Obama had appointed him to, looking at accessibility issues in architecture and transportation.”
Mr. Graves’s death on March 12 came as a shock to his family and colleagues. But while his passing was unexpected, the firm Mr. Graves founded in 1964 had a succession plan in place. Joe Furey, the company’s chief financial officer and principal, has been working on the plan since joining the company just over seven years ago. The company has about 60 employees and is about to hire several more.
“I had a conversation with Michael several years ago on the final wrap up of the succession planning,” he said. “I mentioned to him, ‘The firm is coming up on 50 years. Wouldn’t it be cool if 100 years from now this place is still going strong?’ He got a smile on his face from ear to ear. I really believe he wanted that.”
Mr. Graves was on the faculty of Princeton University’s School of Architecture for nearly four decades. “I’ve been amazed that in what’s been written about him, more attention hasn’t been paid to his career as a teacher,” said Robert Geddes, the school’s former dean and now the William Kennan Professor Emeritus. “It was an extraordinary 40 years of leadership and really high devotion to teaching. From the moment I met him, I knew he had extraordinary talent, and he used those skills in teaching.”
Mr. Geddes continued, “In his early career he was so devoted to Matisse and Cubism and seeing the world from the explorations of modernism. He was a splendid teacher and colleague in that respect. We had courses on visual studies, drawing, and he was right on concerning the importance of drawing — the connection between the eye and the hand and the mind.”
Princeton-based architect Michael Farewell was one of Mr. Graves’s students and an intern at his firm. “His impact as a teacher and mentor matched his work as an artist,” he said. “His passion for drawing, for the close relationship between the eye and the hand, connected his work deeply to architectural history and the exploration of form. And because drawing was at the center of his way of working, he pushed his students to connect to these rich traditions in their own work. Like all great teachers, he taught through the extraordinary conviction of his work.”
Princeton architect J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder), a member of the core faculty of the School of Architecture, knew Mr. Graves for decades. “Michael Graves’s life and work are truly remarkable in that he created his own unique architectural language which was relatively simple to build, somewhat pragmatic, and always colorful,” he said. “Though a competitor, I always admired him as a consummate professional and a huge talent.”
Mr. Geddes also praised Mr. Graves’s renovation of the Arts Council of Princeton building on Witherspoon Street. “With all of this stuff about globalization, local knowledge is important,” he said. “His one building in Princeton for the Arts Council is excellent. My judgment for it is not only in its formal characteristics, sitting as it does on the corner with various entrances and the fact that it is an addition to an existing building. But the proof of the patina is use. You just feel from the way the banners are up and the displays are there and the people are sitting on it that it is really beloved. It’s local and it’s very, very good.”
Mr. Graves’s paintings were the subject of an exhibit at Rider University a few years ago. “He loved to paint,” said Ms. Nichols. “From the time he was in Rome as a student from 1960 to 1962, he did beautiful drawings and paintings. He also painted murals in many of his buildings. And since his paralysis, when he had to give up golf, he started to paint more and more. He did it every weekend. It just became a continuation of the things he loved.”
The fact that Mr. Graves died in his home, surrounded by the things he loved, is a comfort to Ms. Nichols and others who knew him. “When he was first paralyzed, he spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals,” she said. “And he used to say, ‘I can’t die in here. It’s too ugly,’”
For more on Michael Graves, see the obituary on page 37.