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7 design principles I learned working at Michael Graves Architecture & Design

Lessons from the Post-Modern architect and industrial product designer


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Phylicia Flynn

3 years ago | 5 min read

Photo courtesy of The Denver Public Library via Facebook

2015, Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: just like every recent college graduate, I was ready to take on the professional world. I graduated from the New York School of Interior Design where I learned about all the architecture greats in history.

It was in my second semester when I learned about Michael Graves. Love it or hate his style, there’s no denying he was revolutionary.

In a time where all design was moving to clean lines, glass facades, smooth industrial materials and the abandonment of classical architecture, the Postmodern movement was there to challenge it!

A few months after graduation, I was offered an Interior Design role at Michael Graves Architecture and Design. Words could not explain how excited I was to work for such an iconic firm and to learn from the best.

With such a rich history, the firm’s “Culture Committee” decided to host an in-office event once a month. Each month an employee or two would research a project or topic from the past and present it to the office (snacks and refreshments included). I decided to sign up for the last spot of the year with a fellow coworker.

And you bet I attended every single presentation that was before mine. While absorbing all this information, I started to pick up on patterns. The projects were from all over the world and each was so unique but there seemed to be the same guiding principles behind all of them.

I wanted to dig into this idea further so I talked to my coworker and she was all on board to explore it with me! From there, we searched through archives, read many articles, compared notes from previous presentations and set up interviews with principals and employees who have been in the firm since the start.

We were then able to synthesize all the research into 7 Design Principles:

1. Classical Precedence

Rice University’s Lovett Hall completed in 1912 compared to Michael Graves’ Martel College at the same university. Image Sources: Houston Chronicle & Dwell

Since Postmodernism was a direct response to Modern architecture, Michael Graves did not want to abandon historical designs and principles.

He instead used them as a guide and an example of great architecture. But that doesn’t mean he did not put his own style on it! (you’ll see more about this in the following principles)

On example as seen in the above images, shows he used the historic buildings on Rice University’s campus to inspire his own. It was also very prominent in many floor plans, with a round center room reminiscent of Palladian architecture.

2. Abstraction of Figural Objects

Rice University’s Brown College and a tree lined path on campus. Image sources: Michael Graves & Rice University

One defining characteristic of the Postmodern movement was the use of abstraction. Whether it’s a play with scale or an object simplified using geometric shapes, the designs feel familiar yet are new.

Sticking with Rice University, you can see at Brown College the columns in the dining hall that emulate the feel of the tree line groves throughout the campus.

3. Context & Character

Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania compared to the Semel Residence in Malibu. Image sources: LancasterOnline & Realtor.com

I know we aren’t supposed to choose favorites, but this one is my favorite. But this principle is why Michael Graves’ projects are all so unique.

All of the projects were designed with the surrounding location and history in mind. As opposed to modern buildings, you can’t just place his buildings anywhere and it will blend in. Understanding the context of your project is so important.

A great example of this is Lititz Watch Technicum located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

You can tell it was inspired by the local culture and incorporates more of a “barn aesthetic.” Also incorporating local materials, this building does develop its own character while not feeling misplaced.

As opposed to the Semel Residence located in Malibu, CA, the character there directly relates to its context — mainly being the beach. The use of lighter materials, colors and porthole windows really ties this building into its location.

4. Humanistic Scale

International Finance Corporation Building in Washington D.C. Image source: Sarajevo Times

The Modern trend in architecture forgot about one major thing — humans are still a part of these buildings. Vast expanses of planes and cold materials made cool looking buildings, but how comfortable are they really to humans?

Michael Graves never forgot about the users of his buildings. While buildings were getting larger and larger, he wanted to make sure they were still approachable.

One trick he used was called “pavilionizing,” in which he would break down the facade of a building into smaller sections. This was an approach thinking about a person walking down the block next to the building.

5. Making Connections

Model of Clos Pegase Winery’s site and image of one completed building. Image Source: Clos Pegase

Nothing is arbitrary. Everything should have a purpose and a meaning. Michael Graves’ mater plans, buildings and interiors are all related to the overall story and they are all connected.

One example is the Clos Pegase Winery in Napa Valley, CA. The inspiration for this project came from the Pegasus from Clos Pegase’s logo and the Meditteranean-like landscape of the site. The master plan related to a journey the Pegasus would take through this land.

6. Color & Motif

Tea Kettle designed for Alessi and Hyatt Regency Fukuoka in Japan. Image Sources: MoMA & Cooper Hewitt

Another opposition against the Modern movement was the embrace of colors and motifs. And since everything has a meaning, that means colors are representative.

Michael Graves’ most frequently used colors are terracotta and light blue. It’s no coincidence.

If you look at the above image, you can see that the terracotta is acting as the base of the building (representing the ground and earth) while the top is a light blue (representing the sky).

He also utilized color in his product design to convery information. For example, the classic teapot has a red spout (representing hot) and blue handle (representing cool).

*The Famous Running Bond

Washington Monument scaffolding. Image source: Michael Graves
Washington Monument scaffolding. Image source: Michael Graves

I figured out why the running bond was such a popular motif for Michael Graves! It is a beautiful combination of multiple principles. Classical precedence: pattern originated from masonry.

Abstraction of Figural Objects: increased scale and used in a simplified form with no limits to material. Humanistic Scale: used to break down large surfaces.

7. Make Them Smile

Team Disney Building in California. Image Source: archiweb
Team Disney Building in California. Image Source: archiweb

Alright, I changed my mind. THIS one is my favorite. Postmoderism always has this playful sense to it. You can’t and shouldn’t take it too seriously.

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Phylicia Flynn

Interior Designer transformed into UX/Product Designer. NJ transplant living in the Midwest. Has an affinity for dogs, spicy food and coffee shops.


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