From Bauhaus to tract house

Architect Michael Graves turns his folly to the mass market.

Published February 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

A spatula is not going to save the republic. But because the moronic bullies have the American body politic doubled over and bruised, my eyes will light up at the merest democratic salve on one of its many, many wounds. So when I heard that architect Michael Graves, he of the $150 teakettles and postmodern puffery, had designed a line of affordable household objects for the discount chain store Target, I thought it a very nice gesture indeed. Big name architects tend to take big money in the form of lump sums from the big boys. How gracious of Graves to nickel and dime his way to the bank. If America is about anything, it is about the opportunity for the vast middle class to have access to the same ugly teapots hitherto afforded only by the rich.

That Graves' little mass market act seems at all noteworthy is a sign that 20th century architecture did not fully deliver on its dreamily populist promise. Remember all those glorious, screaming manifestos? The cries of designers and builders and even painters who wanted to make themselves useful, participate, be relevant, make change? Any random cri de coeur will do. For example, Walter Gropius' founding document of the Bauhaus school in 1919: "Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and
which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith." And that's the rare sentence in Gropius' document that doesn't end in an exclamation point. His ideals for his design school were both aesthetic and practical: that all the tools of living, from a building to the objects within it, would be thoughtful but affordable, inspired but pragmatic, unique though mass-produced. Thus, everyday ugliness would be banished from the earth -- by workers for workers.

But the crystal symbols of Gropius' now old-fashioned faith have been smashed to bits. How else to explain Target's terrifically witty ad campaign for Graves' products? As seen lately in the front section of the New York Times, the ad is a pun on cultural pretensions. It is laid out on two facing pages, a diptych of affectation. The first half reads, in white on black lettering, "MICHAEL GRAVES NEW WORK FEBRUARY 1999," a pitch-perfect sendup of the blue chip gallery announcements found in the arts section. Target's second panel portrays a stiff, bow-tie wearing connoisseur looking down his nose at Graves' new giant teapot on a pedestal. He says, "I love this design because it never betrays its own artifice, it is provocative without calling
attention to itself, aesthetically pleasing without being narcissistic. Did I mention it whistles?"

The fact that that ad is so funny might break Walter Gropius' heart, not to mention mine. It plays on the accepted notion that well-designed objects belong only to bow-tie wearing snobs. Which maybe isn't such a big deal: Who wants to make a tempest in this teapot? But the ad points at utopian modernism's larger failures. Besides the earlier architects' attention to daily details, their ultimate aim was building useful, beautiful public housing. Here, their ideas took flight, inspiring every last crumbling cinder block, hell-on-earth project ever built. It's all well and good to look in the history books admiring color-plate slides of, say, Le Corbusier's sketches for his "L'Unite d'habitation." It's another experience entirely to be stuck after dark praying for a cab down by Cabrini Green.

But I digress. The real joke of the Graves line for Target is the actual products themselves. I was so excited about seeing an architecture exhibit at a chain store that I knocked over a display of nail polish looking for it. One walks past aisles of lawn mowers and women's underwear in a stuff-of-life way that would have made Gropius proud. But seeing the Graves aisle -- as a consumer in a target (ha ha) demographic -- I felt misunderstood. Like the Dutch workers in the '20s who so loathed their modernist, white-box housing (and rankled their manifesto-writing architects by hanging up lace curtains to soften the harsh square windows), I wanted to scream at Graves' pots and pans, "You don't know what I want!"

Once again, The People get screwed. There are two problems with Graves' designs. First, they are ugly. Not just ugly -- monstrously, ambitiously, astonishingly ugly. Secondly, they are huge. Gigantic. They dwarf. They engulf. They swallow. I am holding in my hand, for example, a slotted spoon the size of an umbrella. Its packaging proclaims, "The Michael Graves product line is an inspired balance of form and function. At once it is sensible and sublime, practical and whimsical, utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing. Michael Graves creates useful objects, which not only carry their weight, but
simultaneously lift our spirits." Well: This spoon doesn't carry its weight. I do. It is a weight. Made of glossy, stainless steel, it's a steal at $7.50 because, clearly, two cars were melted down to mold it. Its bulbous handle is shaped in Graves' unifying form of the egg. So if you suffer from even the mildest carpal tunnel syndrome, stirring spaghetti sauce will cramp your hand.

And I haven't even mentioned the toaster. It costs $39.99. (Is there a more thrillingly American suffix than "ninety-nine"?) But the thing is so unwieldy, one wonders in what kind of kitchen Graves imagined his doodads would reside. Logic would dictate that smaller incomes result in smaller kitchens, that cozier middle-class room constraints would preclude The Toaster That Fed Cleveland. Nevertheless, here it is, complete with slots big enough to toast two bagels sans slicing. This, my fellow Americans, is the Henry Hyde of toasters -- white, rotund and taking up too much space.

A half century after Gropius penned that pie-in-the-sky stuff about crystal symbols of new faith, he said something a little more down to earth. (He'd been hounded by Hitler and emigrated to the United States, which is bound to sap anyone's energy.) He said, "A modern, harmonic and lively architecture is the visible sign of an authentic democracy." What then, does it mean, that the last great American building -- Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao -- was built in Spain? Or that the only American architect in the news, or at least the newspaper, is Michael Graves and his pompous pots and pans?

Any symbolically minded citizen should, with Gropius' words in mind, make a spot check on our national architectural pilgrimage sight, the Washington mall, as I did recently. The Lincoln Memorial has scaffolding obscuring half the Second Inaugural Address. The National Museum of American History has built a box around Old Glory to restore it. (I dare you not to read anything into that.) And the Washington Monument is bound and gagged, wrapped in a meticulous, flashy scaffolding -- designed by Michael Graves, funded in part by Target.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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