A pi­o­neer of post­mod­ern de­sign, big and small

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - ROBIN PO­GRE­BIN

Michael Graves, one of the most prom­i­nent and pro­lific Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects of the lat­ter 20th cen­tury, who de­signed more than 350 build­ings around the world but was per­haps best known for his teaket­tle and pep­per mill, died on Thurs­day at his home in Prince­ton, N.J. He was 80.

Graves was first as­so­ci­ated with the New York Five, a group of ar­chi­tects who achieved cult­like stature by help­ing to re­de­fine mod­ernism in the 1970s. He went on to de­sign projects like the head­quar­ters of the health-care com­pany Hu­mana in Louisville, Ky., and the Port­land Mu­nic­i­pal Build­ing in Ore­gon, which ex­em­pli­fied post­mod­ernism with their re­liance on colour and or­na­ment.

He used his fame as a brand, designing house­wares for Tar­get while con­tin­u­ing to run a busy prac­tice even as post­mod­ernism fell out of fash­ion and Graves’ rep­u­ta­tion with it.

Writ­ing about the Hu­mana build­ing in 1985, Paul Gold­berger of the New York Times called the tower, sheathed in pink gran­ite with a solid glass shaft up the cen­tre, “a re­mark­able achieve­ment — in ev­ery way Mr. Graves’s finest build­ing, a tower that proves his abil­ity not only to work at large scale, but to cre­ate in­te­rior and ex­te­rior de­tails as well wrought as those of any ar­chi­tect now prac­tic­ing.”

But Graves be­came a house­hold name not for his build­ings but for designing more than 2,000 ev­ery­day con­sumer prod­ucts for com­pa­nies such as Tar­get, Alessi, Steuben and Dis­ney. When he was awarded the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects’ gold medal in 2000, the in­sti­tute’s Eu­gene C. Hop­kins said Graves had “brought qual­ity de­signed prod­ucts within reach of ev­ery­one in the coun­try.”

This util­i­tar­ian di­rec­tion ar­guably lost Graves some ground in his pro­fes­sion. “He chose to go pop­ulist and com­mer­cial,” the ar­chi­tect Peter Eisen­man, a good friend of Graves, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “I think you pay a price for those kinds of things.”

Graves per­se­vered nonethe­less, with un­abashed pride. Asked by the Times in 2011 whether he wor­ried about in­jur­ing his rep­u­ta­tion, he said: “Just the op­po­site. It was my hope to do that.”

Born in In­di­anapo­lis on July 9, 1934, Graves stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati and Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. In 1962, he be­gan a 40-year teach­ing ca­reer at Prince­ton. As one of the New York Five, he was linked with Eisen­man, Richard Meier, Charles Gwath­mey and John He­j­duk. They were also known as the Whites, be­cause of their pro­cliv­ity for white build­ings in­spired by the purist forms of Le Cor­bus­ier. Graves be­came among the most cel­e­brated of the post­mod­ernists in the 1980s. But by 1985 the back­lash against post­mod­ernism had be­gun, and the re­jec­tion of Graves’ plan for ex­pand­ing the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Art’s famed Breuer build­ing was a set­back. “No Mo Po Mo!” be­came the ral­ly­ing cry of foes of post­mod­ernism. His de­sign would have rad­i­cally al­tered the fa­cade of the build­ing.

Graves had been par­a­lyzed from the waist down since 2003 as a re­sult of a spinal cord in­fec­tion. Af­ter he be­gan us­ing a wheel­chair, he be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized as an ad­vo­cate of health care de­sign. In a 2011 in­ter­view, he ex­plained why he uses colour in designing hos­pi­tal rooms.

“It’s not there to get you well,” he said, “but make you smile and make you think life is not as bad as that op­er­a­tion you had.”

FRED R. CON­RAD/THE NEW YORK TIMES FILE PHOTO

Michael Graves, seen in 1999, be­came a house­hold name for de­sign­ing more than 2,000 con­sumer prod­ucts for com­pa­nies such as Tar­get and Alessi.

The post­mod­ern Hu­mana build­ing in Louisville, Ky.

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