Michael Graves, an innovative architect and designer, whose daringly offbeat buildings helped define the postmodern movement in architecture and who designed hundreds of household products for Target and other companies, died March 12 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 80.
His death was announced by his firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design. The cause of death was not disclosed, but since 2003 Mr. Graves had been paralyzed from the waist down as the result of an infection that spread to his spinal cord.
From toasters to tea kettles to office towers, no design job was too large or too small for Mr. Graves, who was at once one of the most renowned and most polarizing architects in the world.
In addition to more than 350 buildings, he also designed colanders, dustpans and countless other items, including a particularly stylish toilet brush and receptacle. In 1999, he designed a decorative scaffolding for the Washington Monument, which made the obelisk glow at night as if lighted from within.
Since 2003, when he began to use a wheelchair, Mr. Graves became an advocate of sound design as an element of health care. He worked to design user-friendly medical equipment, hospitals and schools, including St. Coletta Special Education charter school in the District, a colorful, multipurpose center for children and adults with severe mental disabilities.
At the beginning of his career, Mr. Graves designed houses and other small projects in the prevailing modernist style of the mid-20th century, with sleek lines and little ornament. In the early 1970s, he was one of the “New York Five,” a loosely aligned group of architects reshaping modern design.
By the time Mr. Graves finished his first large-scale structure, a 15-story municipal office building in Portland, Ore., in 1982, he was in open rebellion against the austerity of glass-box modernism. Inspired by the classical and Renaissance buildings of Rome, he was seeking an architecture with more of a human touch.
The Portland Building, as it was called, stood out with its colorful masonry exterior, its structural allusions to classical architecture and its bold decorative features.
The building was wildly controversial and was condemned by Time magazine critic Wolf Von Eckardt as a “brazen gesture” that appeared to be “transposed from some second-rate set for Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ ”
Nonetheless, it was considered the first purely “postmodern” building in America and helped establish a new style in which architects looked to history for inspiration.
“Graves has burst into a kind of celebrity shared by no other architect of his generation,” New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in 1982. “Graves, if he is not an epoch-making figure, is the most truly original voice that American architecture has produced in some time.”
Mr. Graves had a second triumph in 1985 with the 26-story headquarters for the Humana health-care company in Louisville. Winning the commission over better-known architects, he designed a building that seemed to soar majestically out of the earth, with a curving balcony near the top. Critics also praised its graceful interior, which included a waterfall.
During those years, Mr. Graves was commissioned to build an addition to the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, and as suddenly as his acclaim had blossomed, it began to wither.
The original Whitney building, designed in 1966 by Marcel Breuer, was essentially a sold block of gray granite and was considered a landmark of the “brutalist” school of architecture. To those immune to the charms of brutalism, the building resembles an unpainted filing cabinet with the top two drawers pulled out.
Mr. Graves’s initial proposal was like a Cubist collage, with a pink building standing next to Breuer’s, a cylindrical structure connecting the two and visual references to pyramids and Manhattan brownstones.
More than 600 notable architects, artists and civic leaders were aghast and signed a petition of protest against Mr. Graves.
Even after he scaled back his design, the anger did not abate. The annex was never built, and Mr. Graves’s reputation as an elite architect never was shaken.
He began designing consumer products in the 1980s, most notably a conical tea kettle for the Alessi housewares company, which became widely imitated. Mr. Graves and his designers went on to create more than 2,000 products, many for the Target chain, ranging from colanders to dustpans, kitchen tools and a patio set.
“I figured, it it’s going to get designed, let’s do it well,” he said in 2011. “So that’s what we did, and I’m happy about it.”
As Mr. Graves’s populist appeal rose, his credibility in highbrow architectural circles continued to slide.
“He is regarded by many as a stale trend: yesterday’s bag,” New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp scoffed in 1999.
Still, Mr. Graves had scores of commissions for college buildings, hotels and government centers, including the U.S. Transportation Department headquarters in Washington. His whimsical design for the Disney studios in Burbank, Calif., included a heavy-lifting crew of the Seven Dwarfs from “Snow White” functioning as columns, supporting the building’s pediment.
In 1999, Mr. Graves designed a structure to surround the Washington Monument while it was being restored.
“Graves’ scaffolding is so elegant — a thin, silvery web of aluminum that’s lit spectacularly at night — that a movement has sprung up to keep it in place,” architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The monument appears at once ageless and contemporary, transparent and opaque, fragile and permanent — a superscale light sculpture.”
Michael Edward Graves was born July 9, 1934, in Indianapolis. His father was a livestock broker.
Mr. Graves worked his way through the University of Cincinnati, graduating with an architecture degree in 1958. He received a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University in 1959, then won a fellowship that allowed him to study in Rome.
He joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1962. Still a committed modernist at first, he began to think of architecture as an extension of humanity, built around the activity and needs of ordinary people.
“Modernist tower designers, obsessed with the concept of buildings as machines of commerce,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “seem to have forgotten that people come first. The result is that most of these buildings look like refrigerators left out in the rain.”
His marriages to Gail Devine and Lucy James ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage; and a son from another relationship.
Mr. Graves received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1999 and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 2001.
In 2003, the effects of the spinal infection caused Mr. Graves to spend months in hospitals and to reassess his life and career. He continued to accept commissions for standard buildings, but he increasingly focused on the needs of people with disabilities.
He required his designers to spend a week in a wheelchair, learning to navigate a world in which mirrors were too high, bathroom faucets were unreachable and electrical outlets were near the floor.
“My paralysis did not take away my ability to design,” he told The Washington Post last year, “and in fact has, if anything, made me a better designer.”