In 2003, Michael Graves had returned home from a business trip to Germany and Switzerland. He wasn’t feeling well and told colleagues at his architectural firm that he was leaving early to rest.
By the next morning, Graves, one of the most prominent U.S. architects and designers, was fighting for his life against a mysterious virus.
It was not until two years later, after treatment in eight hospitals and four rehab centers, that Graves finally got back to work — paralyzed from the chest down.
This story is not about the virus or his rehab, but about what Graves has done with the rest of his life: design hospitals and rehab centers for people like himself, for wounded soldiers and for others facing physical challenges. Most of what exists now, he says, is just too depressing to even die in.
“I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” said Graves, 80. Designers, he said, must understand the physical implications of not being well: “This became very real to me after my illness, so since then I’ve asked my design team to spend a week in a wheelchair.”
Until he got sick, Graves was a “rock star,” as one of his employees puts it, best known as the designer of such buildings as the municipal center in Portland, Ore. — hailed as the first postmodern building in America — as well as some of the playful, entertaining Disney hotels and the Spanish Mission-inspired library in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
When the Washington Monument needed a major renovation in 1998, the National Park Service hired him to design the illuminated scaffolding around it.
Graves also brought his style to consumers. He created the iconic angular stainless steel Alessi teakettle, which has been Alessi’s top-selling product every year since its debut in 1985, and for more than a dozen years he designed a line of household products for Target (a role that he now plays for JC Penney).
Graves was designing a building for St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a school for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities, when he contracted the virus that changed his life. For nearly three years he vanished into the world of his own medical problems, and only returned to the St. Coletta project in 2006, for its opening.
“It was the first project opening that I attended in my wheelchair,” Graves said. Before his illness, he said, he knew intuitively and from the staff what kind of design was needed to make life for handicapped individuals easier, but after his illness, it really hit home. Many students at the opening were also in wheelchairs, and one of them told the architect how grateful he was to have a school designed to work for him. “That,” Graves said, “reconfirmed my mission to improve health-care experiences with great design.”
In 2010, Graves was asked by Clark Realty Capital, a construction and rental firm, to come up with a prototype for a single-family home that a wounded soldier could live in with his family while continuing on active duty at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. He had redesigned his own home in Princeton, N.J., and knew what was required for someone dealing with disabilities.
The project brought to Graves’ attention the number of wounded soldiers who choose to remain on active duty and attuned him to the broader needs of an aging but still active generation of baby boomers.
He said, “With the improvements in battlefield medicine, combined with an aging U.S. population that wants to ‘age in place,’ a focus on accessibility and home health care is vital to our nation’s future.”