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At Home with Architect Michael Graves
A run-down Princeton warehouse, transformed by Michael Graves into his own elegant home
Renovating is a way of life for award-winning architect Michael Graves. Famous for his exuberant designs--from Florida's Disney World hotels topped with supersized swans and dolphins to light-flooded libraries to whistling bird teakettles--he has built his career designing updates and additions for homes, commercial buildings, and even landmarks such as the Washington Monument.
"Everybody is renovating. That's what architecture has always been," Michael says, wryly adding, "How many times has St. Peters been renovated?" (Answer: Many.)
And while Michael is celebrated the world over for his innovative and people-friendly designs, he knows the down-and-dirty, will-this-ever-end side of remodeling firsthand. Over a period of 30 years, he has transformed an old rundown warehouse into his elegant Princeton, New Jersey, home, doing much of the work himself.
Michael bought the "ruin of a building" in 1974, when he was teaching at Princeton University and had only a fledgling practice. "Money wasn't flowing," he says with a smile. Despite the building's drawbacks (no plumbing, no heating or cooling, bad wiring, and a seriously leaking roof), he was intrigued. Having lived and studied at the American Academy in Rome in the early 1960s, Michael was struck with how the building resembled a Tuscan barn. "It was built in 1927 as a storage warehouse by Italian masons who had come here to build the Princeton University campus," he explains.
He appreciated the building's Italian heritage and also its no-nonsense industrial qualities. "It was rugged," Michael says. "It was a tough building, and I liked that strength." Inspired by the design and the price--a bargain at $30,000--he bought it. Michael continues to refer to his home as The Warehouse, although one of his colleagues playfully calls it "the house of wares," in reference to the architect's many product designs.
Divorced and on his own, Michael renovated in stages "living like a student" for 10 years, with plywood countertops in a makeshift kitchen. "I didn't realize what it would cost to renovate it," he admits. "As an architect I should have known. But the shell was there, so I thought all I'd have to do was finish the interiors. Little did I know there would be hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow."
The two-story structure was divided into dozens of small, mostly windowless rooms that had been leased for storage. The walls and ceilings were made of hollow clay tiles--a traditional style of building in Italy, he notes. City restrictions prohibited him from adding on, so Michael worked within the existing footprint, plotting a floor plan based on the sun. "I wanted light in the morning, so I faced the kitchen toward the east," he says. "Given that the house is L-shaped and caught the light anyway, following the path of the sun was an easy way to figure out where to put various living spaces."
To gain more light in the dining room and create an uncovered entry courtyard, the architect removed part of an exterior wall and a section of roof where the two legs of the L meet. Three glass doors open the dining room to this courtyard, and new steel casement windows and doors throughout maximize exposure to natural light.
Renovations are about accommodating existing structural features, and the warehouse proved that point repeatedly. A low structural ceiling beam visually sliced off the north ends of the living and dining rooms. Michael's solution was to turn the narrow spaces into cozy alcoves accented by "milk-bottle-shaped" columns and barrel-arched ceilings. The dining room alcove is often where Michael sets the "children's table" when he hosts holiday family dinners.
Other structural challenges included concrete floors and no basement, which complicated the installation of mechanical systems. "I could have put piping down the walls and into floors but the floors were already established by the existing building, so that would be a real job," he says. Instead, he built soffits around each room to contain heating and cooling ducts and other mechanicals. Rather than disguising the vents, Michael designed artistic black grills, set them on the vertical, and symmetrically arranged them at ceiling height like decorative elements.
"The existing ceilings were low, and I wanted the illusion of a little more height," Michael says. "Lowering the ceiling around the edges created raised recesses that we painted a very light blue in the center of most of the room."
A glass roof--the same as those used in greenhouses--tops the two-story library adjoining the living room. Floor-to-ceiling shelves line two walls of the room, and vertical posts support the shelves like miniature columns. "They're actually PVC pipe faux painted to look like wood," Michael says. The shelves are MDF (medium density fiberboard), also stained to look like fine wood.
The house is comfortably furnished with Michael's collection of classic honey-toned Biedermeier chairs, chests, and tables. "I started rummaging around in the '70s and '80s, when Biedermeier wasn't as popular as it is now," he says. "I like it for its architectural qualities. The pieces are like little pavilions. They're wonderful little follies, most of them."
A prolific designer of all things home related, Michael has created products for companies like Alessi, Baldinger Architectural Lighting, Dansk, Duravit, Delta, David Edward furniture, and Steuben, as well as housewares, decorative accessories, and furnishings for Target. Not surprisingly, his creations fill his home, including light fixtures and sconces, upholstered chairs, clocks, dishes, a chess set, and nearly every kitchen accessory and small appliance.
While he has original art by such notables as French painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean Prudhomme, much of the artwork is by his hand, including several Corot look-alikes in the dining room. Arranged throughout his home are statuary, pottery, candleholders, and other Grand Tour souvenirs dating from the 1800s and early 1900s. Well-heeled young adults of that era frequently took Grand Tours of famous historic sites, returning with souvenirs. Michael took his own Grand Tour when he was studying in Italy and collected many antique tour treasures.
Although The Warehouse renovation is basically finished, Michael continues to make changes. He was stricken in 2003 with a spinal disease that resulted in lower-body paralysis, and he is now restricted to a wheelchair. Undaunted, he added an elevator and redesigned his upstairs master bath to accommodate his wheelchair.
He continues to design as well as oversee his two businesses--Michael Graves and Associates, an architectural and interior design practice, and Michael Graves Design Group, a product design firm. He has collaborated with Target on product design since 1999 and in March is releasing his newest collection.
It's no wonder that when the American Institute of Architects awarded Michael a Gold Medal, its highest honor, it summarized his work this way: "(His) art delights in the pleasure of living, inviting the public, not as an observer or even a guest, but as a participant in his joyous celebration of life."
Interior design: Michael Graves, Michael Graves & Associates, 341 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ 08540; 800/927-6409, and 18 W. 21st St.,New York, NY 10010; 212/941-5890, michaelgraves.com.
For an overview of Michael Graves designs for the home, click on Michael Graves Design Goup at michaelgraves.com.
Photography: John Bessler
Produced by JoAnn McVicker
A terra-cotta-colored wall sets off furnishings that range from antiques to upholstered chairs designed by--of course--Michael Graves.
Chairs by fireplace (designed by Michael Graves); fabric (silk); table between chairs (19th-century Grand Tour); round pedestal table (Biedermeier, c. 1830); wooden wing-style chair (Biedermeier, c. 1830); round table beside wooden chair (19th-century Grand Tour); stool beside blue chair (19th-century Grand Tour); chest beside stool (Biedermeier, c. 1830); drapery (linen, designed by Michael Graves); rug (cashmere, early 20th-century); fireplace wall (faux marble, painted by Michael Graves); sculpture on mantel (19th-century Grand Tour); vases (Wedgwood): owner's collection.
Fabric on wooden chairs (horsehair): Old World Weavers, 212/355-7186. Paint: Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
An intimate spot off the living room.
Chair (by Wiener Werkstatte); fabric (antique blue mohair); stand for bust (antique); bust (19th-century Grand Tour); painting in niche (copy of Claude Lorraine's Pastoral Landscape with a Flight into Egypt); area rug (antique): owner's collection.
Commode (Biedermeier,c. 1830): Schlapka, schlapka.de. Light over painting: Visual Comfort & Co., 713/686-5999. Available through Circa Lighting, 877/762-2323, circalighting.com .
A glass roof floods the library with light.
Bookcases (faux birdseye maple painting on PVC pipe and MDF shelves, designed by Michael Graves); bookcase ladder (antique); book stand (antique); rugs (antique prayer rugs); round etching (antique): owner's collection. Paint: Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
Architectural drawing tools are arranged on a shelf.
Small clerestory windows capture slices of light that accentuate the arched ceiling.
Pedestal table (Bedermeier, c.1830); chairs (antique, Klismos); painting (Grand Tour copy of Aurora, by Guido Reni); framed drawing on table (Anonymous); vase on table (19th-century Grand Tour); carpet runner (antique); wood columns (custom, designed by Michael Graves): owner's collection.
Armoire in niche (Biedermeier, c. 1830): Niall Smith Antiques, 212/750-3985. Frieze to left of painting (from Day and Night, by Bertel Thorvaldsen): Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, thorvaldsensmuseum.dk.
Michael designed the winding staircase. Walls are wood panels with beveled edges that simulate stone blocks. The sugar and creamer, cups, and vase are Michael's designs.
Table (designed by Michael Graves): Michael Graves & Assoc., 800/927-6409, michaelgraves.com.
Chairs (antique); pedestal (designed by Michael Graves); bust on pedestal (antique, 19th-century, Grand Tour); area rug (modern, Turkish); running bond pattern walls (material is MDF, designed by Michael Graves); built-in bookcases (designed by Michael Graves): owner's collection.
Chair-seat fabric: Spinneybeck Leather, spinneybeck.com.
Many of the accessories in this room were sold as Grand Tour souvenirs a century ago. Michael designed the glass-and-metal centerpiece vessel for Steuben.
Table (antique, American Regency); chairs (assorted, Biedermeier, c. 1820); striped chair-seat fabric (antique); candlesticks on table (Grand Tour antiques); area rug (designed by Michael Graves); windows and doors (some are English doors by Crittall): owner's collection.
Frieze over fireplace: Giust Gallery, 781/933-2455, giustgallery.com.
Leather chair-seat fabric: Spinneybeck Leather, spinneybeck.com.
Windows and doors: some are by Hope's of New York, hopeswindows.com.
Wall paint: Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
Candle sconce (designed by Michael Graves, originally fabricated by Francoise Guillemin): currently produced by Baldinger Lighting, 888/481-7631, baldinger.com.
Light sconces in a downstairs powder room are Michael's designs as well.
Pedestal sink (antique); mirror (designed by Michael Graves): flooring (Verona marble): owner's collection.
Faucets: Czech & Speake, czechandspeake.com.
Sconces (Michael Graves for Baldinger Lighting): Baldinger Lighting, 888/481-7631, baldinger.com.
Paint: Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
Concrete floors in the kitchen and breakfast room were scored and hand-tinted.
Cabinetry (designed by Michael Graves); ceiling lights (designed by Michael Graves); flooring (concrete, hand-tinted, designed by Michael Graves); island table; stools at island (piano stools); countertop (marble); wooden tray with canisters (designed by Michael Graves for Target); white canisters (designed by Michael Graves for Target); toaster (designed by Michael Graves for Target); coffee maker (designed by Michael Graves for Target); coffee cup and saucer (designed by Michael Graves and manufactured by Tiffany); ceramic vase (designed by Michael Graves for Alessi): owner's collection.
Cabinetry finish: Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
Cabinetry pulls and hardware: Merit Metal Products, 215/343-2500, meritmetal.com. Sink: Elkay, elkay.com.
Faucets: Chicago Faucets, 847/803-5000, chicagofaucets.com.
Dishwasher: Miele, 800/843-7231, mieleusa.com.
Michael Graves found the table discarded on a curb and paired it with wood piano stools.
Many of the products Michael has designed for Target in his 11-year association with the retailer equip his own kitchen, including a toaster, a coffeepot, and canisters.
Michael studied in Rome for two years and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, where he collected Grand Tour art and antiques, such as the sculpture on the tall wood stand he designed.
Wooden table (Biedermeier, c.1830); chair with curved wooden arms (19th-century French); piano stool (antique); carpet (designed by Michael Graves); table lamp (antique); art (Anonymous, 19th-century Italian); stand for sculpture (designed by Michael Graves); sculpture (19th-century Grand Tour): owner's collection.
A chaise longue by early 20th-century designer Le Corbusier sits in a corner.
Chaise (by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand); striped throw (antique); bureau (Biedermeier, c.1830): owner's collection.
For relaxation, Michael paints in his home studio, often replicating the works of one of his favorite artists, 19th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Among Michael’s honors is the National Medal of Arts, presented to him in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.
The original warehouse was brick and stucco, so Michael stuccoed the entire exterior. He added the wisteria-covered pergola that connects the library and north wing of the house to the outdoors.
An entry courtyard was created by removing part of the building roof where the two wings meet. Michael designed an interior rotunda entrance, which links the two wings of the house. He added a winding staircase and elevator.