A pioneer of postmodern design, big and small
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.”
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.