Michael Graves, Postmodern Architect and Advocate for Humanist Design, Dead at 80

The renowned architect of the Portland Building and designer of the Alessi teapot died Thursday.

Courtesy Michael Graves & Associates

Michael Graves died on Thursday, at the age of 80. He ranks among the most influential practitioners of the twentieth century.

Graves graduated from the University of Cincinnati and later Harvard University, where he received his master’s degree in 1959. After spending two years at the American Academy in Rome, Graves accepted a teaching position at Princeton University; he made Princeton his permanent home and place of practice. Reared on Le Corbusier and the Modernist tradition, Graves eventually broke with the aesthetic agenda of the New York Five, the quasi-collective he was lumped into, along with friends and contemporaries Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and Charles Gwathmey. Graves made waves in the late 1970s for embracing the Postmodern tide; as it turned out, the visual puns and historicist compositions suited his good-natured temperament. By the 1990s, with several key buildings under him, Graves turned his attention to consumer goods, collaborating first with Target and later with J.C. Penney.

Around this time, he was bestowed numerous honors for his work, including the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by former president Bill Clinton. Over a decade later, in 2013, he was appointed to the United States Access Board by president Barack Obama for his efforts in universal design. (In 2003, Graves was paralyzed from the chest down, and devoted part of his product design studio to accessible and patient-care design.)

Last year, Graves celebrated the 50th anniversary of his architectural practice, Michael Graves & Associates. An ongoing exhibition at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey was conceived to mark the occasion. A symposium held at the Architectural League in November further reinforced this milestone, and poignantly concluded with a tête-à-tête with Graves’s longtime friend Peter Eisenman. (The latter jokingly dubbed the loose conversation, in which Graves took shots at Santiago Calatrava, among other targets, the “Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves Comedy Hour.”

Plans for a memorial service will be announced soon, according to a statement released by Graves’s practice. It reads as follows:

“It is with deep sadness that Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D) announces the firm’s Founding Principal Michael Graves has passed away today, suddenly and peacefully, of natural causes. He was in his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

“Since founding the firm in 1964, Michael transformed the role of architects and designers, and even the place of design in our everyday lives. For those of us who had the opportunity to work closely with Michael, we knew him as an extraordinary designer, teacher, mentor and friend. For the countless students that he taught for more than 40 years, Michael was an inspiring professor who encouraged everyone to find their unique design voice.

“Of all of his accomplishments, Michael often said that, like his own family, his proudest creation was his firm. As we go forward in our practice, we will continue to honor Michael’s humanistic design philosophy through our commitment to creating unique design solutions that transform people’s lives.”

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