Michael Graves’ Art at Studio Vendome

People / Places / October 6, 2014

It’s hard not to marvel at the multifaceted arc of Michael Graves’ 50-year career.

He’s been a Harvard-trained modernist, a Rome fellow, a member of the New York Five, a postmodern master, a product designer – and a painter with a fine eye and muted palette.

That last facet goes on display tonight at the Vendome Gallery in SoHo, where 60 of his paintings will be on display.

“The colors are very architectural,” he says. “Frank Gehry once said to me that he was looking for a red that will stay red; I said I was looking for a red that will change in the sunlight, with a slight patina.”

A number of the paintings were done from drawings he made while in Italy, among them landscapes and still lifes.

Most have been painted within the past five years, which is in and of itself a remarkable feat. Paralyzed from the waist down by an unknown virus in 2003, Graves has remained prolific in his art, his architecture and the products he design. Among these are furnishings for a hospital room, and a new kind of wheelchair.

“I had been in and out of hospitals for three or four year and it was just awful,” he says. “I’ve always a glass-half-full kind of person, and I thought: you’re an architect and a patient – do something with that.”

And so he did, designing furniture for a patient suite for Stryker, much as he’d once developed household products for Target and JC Penney.

A chair for stroke patients features arms that bend up and out, much like a shepherd’s crook. “When they can’t find the arms to guide them into the seat, it allows them to grab hold as they’re getting in and getting out,” he says.

Perhaps his most ambitious and successful design is for the Prime TC transport chair, which enables patients to wheel themselves from hospital room to MIR or CAT scan. “The current chair was designed in 1933,” he says. “It hadn’t been improved, so I decided to do something about that,” he says.

Where a footplate in the 1933 model trips patients getting in or out, Graves has made his footplate moveable. “There are things like that all over the chair,” he says. “It’s a helluva lot more comfortable, and it just works better.”

When his firm was named one of the top 25 most influential designers by a leading health care magazine, that part of his practice picked up considerably. “I asked an architect recently what kind of building he’s do next and he said ‘No healthcare,”’ Graves says. “I said that I’d do nothing but healthcare.”

With time off for the occasional acrylic on canvas, one hopes.

The exhibition runs through Dec. 31.

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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