Michael Graves On Collaborating with Big Retailers

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Big name designers collaborating with big retailers has become an established practice - and it was more or less established by Michael Graves. Between 1999 and 2012, Graves and his team put their design stamp on over 2,000 household products for Target. Their latest endeavor is a home goods collection and store-within-a-store for J.C. Penney. I had a chance to chat with Mr. Graves at the J.C. Penney Home Launch Party last month and get his perspective on the changing landscape of designer/retailer collaborations. 

From a designer's perspective what are the challenges of making designs more affordable or is design design?

Design is design but one of the issues with affordability is you can't use exotic materials. You have to use very simple stuff, so we use glass and wood and porcelain and we don't use sterling silver or anything like that so we really keep a lid on it by the materials we use. But it's harder to make something affordable than it is to make something that only the elite can buy, then you don't have to struggle so much.

How has the landscape of working with big retailers changed since fifteen years ago when you began working with Target?

Well we get to do a shop within a store [with J.C. Penney]. Back in the old days at Target we used to have two aisles and then they separated everything - they put toasters with toasters and coffee makers with coffee makers - so all our work was distributed around the store so it lost its impact. This way we'll keep that impact. 

How do you think the perception of designers who work with big retailers has changed since you began? You were a trailblazer in that sense.

Well Target has 500 designers that are all in-house, nobody from the outside like me. They're all Target people. So they are the biggest design house in the world. When they started they had nobody except me and then a few other people worked with them from the outside. At one time there were seventeen outside designers and then those people started to drift away and not have their contracts renewed and that sort of thing. Now it's all in house and it's a very different scene. I would be competing with my boss. I would be competing with Target if I were still working for Target.

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It seems now that designers boost their profile or their brand with these type of collaborations, but in the beginning did you worry it was going to bring down your brand?

I've never worried about that.

When you're collaborating with a big company like J. C. Penney how do you balance your creative freedom with the constraints of working with another design team and their customers?

Well it's a lot easier than getting a building done. So we work with people, whether it's contractors or clients or whomever it is, we work with those people all along, so we're used to it. It's just part of the day.

Do you have any personal favorites in this collection? Anything you want to put in your own home or give as a gift?

I bought a wooden bowl for my house last week. I love it.

They didn't comp it to you?

I buy everything.

(Images: 1. J.C. Penney 2. Getty Images)


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As Apartment Therapy's Family Editor, Carrie covers design and modern homelife with children. A lapsed librarian, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids and is in contention to break the record for most hours spent at the playground.