Hot Pots: Michael Graves Brings Exhibition of Edgy Tea Kettles to Princeton Prep School

Alessi Sugar Bowl, Kettle with Bird Whistle, and Creamer
(Courtesy Michael Graves Design Group)

A seminal figure in American postmodern architecture, Michael Graves has designed hundreds of major buildings worldwide, but a new exhibition at the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery of the Princeton Day School focuses on his other postmodern masterpiece: the tea kettle.

In the very cleverly titled show “Michael Graves: Letting Off Steam,” the gallery charts his less publicized career as a prolific product designer, a timely retrospective as his 15-year run dreaming up "democratized design" for Target comes to an end this year. The exhibition begins with the sterling and ivory Coffee and Tea Piazza, a commission by Italian fine silver factory Alessi that brought Graves into product design in 1981. The highly successful set (coveted by Nancy Reagan, who was, unfortunately, never able to bring it into the White House) announced Graves as a major force in the industry. Having lived for several years in Rome, he applied the same classical forms, along with a signature palette of Etruscan rusty red and cerulean blue, to the thousands of products he created.

"Michael’s language is so consistent whether you’re looking at buildings of his in Europe or tea sets," gallery director Jody Erdman told ARTINFO. "The Coffee and Tea Piazza has got the same columns, triangle feet, and ball on the top as his architecture. It’s a language that’s completely recognizable and sophisticated." That consistent design language, also embodied in that omnipresent, little red rooster that sits on the spout — an iconic bit of quirk inspired by his Midwestern upbringing that, over the years, evolved into whimsical, abstract forms — endured throughout his affordable designs for Target in 1999, and the mouse-eared kettles he created to match the buildings he designed for Disney.

In addition to models and prototypes tracing the development of these products — borrowed from the Alessi Museum in Italy and Graves’ personal collection — the exhibition also opens the pages of his personal sketchbooks and showcases napkin scribbles of spouts, whistles, and handles. The exhibition runs in tandem with the Princeton Day School’s architectural and industrial design programs, where the kiddies will actually be learning how to design their own tea kettles. If Target is looking for the next Michael Graves, that would be a good place to start its search. 

"Michael Graves: Letting Off Steam" runs at the Anne Reid '72 Gallery through April 25. There will be an opening reception on Monday, April 9 the, hosted by the architect himself. To see the exhibition's vast assortment of postmodern tea kettles, click the slide show