Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 30
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate

Henderson Sotheby's International Realty

N.T. Callaway Princeton Office

Stockton Real Estate, LLC

Weichert, Realtors

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Iris Interiors

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Weather Forecast

All in a Day’s Work

(Photo by Rob Van Varick)
CHAMPION OF FUNCTION AND BEAUTY: Donald Strum has worked in the Product Design Division of Michael Graves Design Group since 1983.

“We’re design innovators,” said Donald Strum of his work as a Principal in the Product Design Division of Michael Graves Design Group (MGDG). “We produce products that improve and enhance people’s lives.” The array of tea kettles, picture frames, clocks, watches, and, yes, toilet plungers, that adorn the firm’s conference room are a testament to the company’s genuine interest in how people live their lives on a daily basis, as well as the belief that these items should be beautiful. “I’m an extension of Michael Graves’s hand,” says Mr. Strum. “I feel it’s a big responsibility.”
— Ellen Gilbert

I’ve been here for 27 years. In that time I’ve had a wide range of experiences. I’d say we’re “general practitioners” of design; we consider the house and all the things in it. A “hospitality” project for a hotel includes everything down to the mint on the pillow.

Most recently, we’ve really taken to working on mobility devices and the patient room for health care. A lot of this comes from Michael Graves’s personal experience with paralysis. Being in a wheelchair, he’s identified various levels of indignities people like him experience. Although we do our best to move products into the home and make them good for anyone in any age group, sometimes you have to focus. This is one of those times.

Our projects come from both commissions as well as when we identify a need for something; you can’t wait for someone to knock on the door. I’ve worked on both large and small scale products. When you see a glassblower bring your sketch to life, you really understand the alchemy and magic that goes into it. Proportion, scale, and composition are the three essential elements, along with how a product relates to you as a human being.

There’s no typical day here. Sometimes my colleague and firm partner, Linda Kinsey, and I look at each other and say “Wow — what a day!” It’s just so rewarding. You have to love what you do; you have to jump out of bed and not want to waste any time getting to work. Linda and I have worked together for 23 years. We’re always together at the front end of a project, making design decisions and doing business negotiations. Then we split up: she does marketing, I work on the design with Michael and the team. In the end, we get back together to make sure we’ve done what we set out to do. We do the dance very well. Sometimes at the fuzzy front end some of us get a little carried away, but Linda and Michael always bring us back. 

I’ve travelled the world by working here in Princeton. I’ve been all over Europe, China, and Japan. We designed high-end products with European companies; then Target came knocking. It was a good opportunity to reach the widest possible audience. We designed over 200 products within a year, all priced so anyone could benefit from it.

Parsons School of Design gave me skill sets, but my real education in design came from being mentored by, and working with, Michael Graves. Michael has created a real legacy; there’s a language here — a humanistic approach — that finds solutions to problems and changes the way we interact with things. When we’re in the trenches of designing, collaboration can be intense. But the back-and-forth conversations, the creative dissonance that goes on, always results in something better and unexpected. Our products are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

My watch? It just came out. It’s called Syzygy — it’s to do with with astronomy, whereby three of more celestial bodies are in alignment. MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) will hopefully carry it. They carry many of our other watches.

At one point I experimented with my own design voice with a few independent projects. I had to get it out of my system, but it ultimately made me a stronger designer for MGDG. I came back stronger. Michael is very generous in giving people credit. I always feel that I am being heard; I think it has to do with his experience as a professor working with students. He’s given me the opportunity to work for the best, and I carry the torch of what he represents. I believe in it.

Mr. Strum’s enthusiasm for what he does is unflagging. “Can I show you one last object?” he asks a visitor who is getting ready to leave. “You’d be surprised at how many of these we sell,” he says holding up a toilet plunger. He goes on to describe how ethnographic research identified the fact that when homes have more than one bathroom, there is almost invariably only one plunger. What happens when another toilet acts up? While the typical plunger drips as you carry it across a hall or up and down steps, when you pick up the Michael Graves plunger by its handle, the base it rests in comes with it. Voila — no drips. “And it’s beautiful,” Mr. Strum added.

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