When he passed away in March, Michael Graves left a design legacy stretching back 50 years and encompassing some of the most dramatic changes in architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In this interview, conducted in 2012 for her new e-book "Celebrity Designers: 50 Interviews on Design, Architecture, and Life," Maria Spassov quizzes Graves on his career, from the first moment he decided to be an architect to what he believes to be his greatest achievement.
When did you first discover your love of architecture?
As a young boy, the thing I could do best was draw. My mother was very nervous that I would try to become a fine artist. She knew it would be difficult to make a living as an artist. Therefore, she encouraged me to find a career path that incorporated drawing, and she suggested engineering or architecture. I asked her what an engineer did, and after she told me, I decided I would be an architect, because I knew I didn’t want to do engineering. I was probably eight years old.
Is there something that connects all your projects?
Humanism is probably the thing that connects all our projects. Whether planning a city, designing a building, designing a piece of furniture, or designing a toaster, first and foremost I think about how people will interact with the design. I embraced this philosophy while studying in Rome. It is the most important filter that I include in all our projects and it is the greatest thing I have instilled in our office. The terms have become almost cliché, but function drives form in good design at every scale.
Looking back at your first project, what knowledge do you wish you had back then?
While I’m sure I would make certain design decisions differently today than I did on my first projects, I believe every experience informs one's perspective, so I can’t say I wish I had any of today’s design knowledge when I designed my first project. Architecture is an experiential proposition for architects. You are always building on the last experience. Therefore, every experience is important.
What have been the rewards of practicing architecture?
Practicing architecture has been a real gift. I have traveled the world. I have met incredible people. Clients have become friends. Colleagues have become family. I believe we have made a real contribution. Teaching architecture has been equally rewarding. My students have had so much success. I am proud to have contributed to their understanding of and approach to architecture and design.
You have designed everything from skyscrapers to home products and have been honored with numerous awards. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
It is hard for me to answer a question like that about myself. The magazine Fast Company once said that my greatest design is my firm. I think that might be true. I am fortunate to have built an office full of the greatest designers in the world. From my partners who have been with me for decades to our most recent hire, everyone in our office is completely committed to design excellence, and works extremely hard to develop unique design solutions for our clients.
What are your favorite books?
I love books. Naming favorites is almost like naming favorite children or favorite designs. However, currently I have just finished reading Nicholas Fox Weber’s Le Corbusier: A Life. I have just started reading Robert Hughes.
What is your advice to architecture students?
The advice that I always give to young architects is to read EVERYTHING.
What is the most important design element?