Michael Graves, 80, the Princeton architect as famous for the whimsical housewares he designed for Target as for his supersized, classically inspired postmodern buildings, died Thursday at his home, his firm announced.
Graves, who taught at Princeton University for 39 years, became a popular success in the 1980s after he renounced theoretical modernism in favor of a brash postmodernist style. Starting with the Portland, Ore., municipal building in 1982, he began turning out a series of ornate, highly colored, and often cartoonish designs that employed simplified classical forms such as columns and pediments on a gigantic scale.
Critics did not especially like those designs, but they acknowledged that Graves' work marked an important shift in architecture. Like most of his contemporaries, he started out as a follower of the modernist giant Le Corbusier and designed rigorous white boxes that were admired in the academy. In the 1970s, Graves became part of an influential group of modernist architects known as the New York Five.
Then, in the early 1980s, Graves abruptly renounced their approach and did a complete about-face. "He was seen as a kind of traitor," said Sandy Isenstadt, who teaches the history of modern architecture at the University of Delaware.
In interviews, Graves often explained that he had grown disenchanted with the cold, academic side of modernism. "It wasn't as much about style as people think. It was really a return to humanism," said Karen Nichols, who joined Graves' Princeton firm in 1976 and is now one of its principals.
Graves did not invent postmodernism. Philadelphia's Robert Venturi, who also was associated with Princeton, had already shocked the architectural establishment with designs that celebrated classical forms and ornament. But Graves went on to become its most popular practitioner.
Stanley Tigerman, a Chicago-based architect who was a friend of Graves' and shared his aesthetic outlook, credited Graves with bringing back "imagery and symbolism" to architecture.
At its best, Graves' work had childish charm that appealed to a public bored with the serious rigor of modernism, and its sunniness mirrored the optimism being projected by President Ronald Reagan.
After the critical success of the Portland Building, Graves was showered with commissions. He created "entertainment hotels" for Walt Disney World, topped with sculpted swans and dolphins, as well as dozens of products for Alessi, Target, and other manufacturers.
Graves also was one of the first architects to merchandise himself as a product designer. Thanks to his humorous television commercials for Target, his witty whistling-bird teakettle become an icon. It remains a best-seller.
Graves' career took another turn in 2003 when he was stricken with a mysterious viral infection that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He used a wheelchair the rest of his life. During his months of rehab, he was shocked to discover how little designers understood the needs of the disabled. Lying on a gurney, he recalled, he thought: "I don't want to die here because it's so ugly."
It wasn't just the look of the place that bothered him. It was how unsympathetic it was to the needs of the disabled. Vowing to improve the situation, he devoted himself to the cause of "universal design," which advocates products that cater equally to all people.
For all his celebrity, Graves remains a divisive figure in architecture. Meredith Clausen, an art historian at the University of Washington, called his Portland Building "the most controversial published building in architectural history," and last year the city government even discussed demolishing the squat office building. By the end of the 1990s, his work was being described as stale and reactionary.
Graves always maintained his ties with Princeton and was beloved as a teacher, even by students cool to postmodernism. The Indianapolis native continued to work on numerous designs in his adopted state, including a major renovation of the Newark Museum and the Delaware River Port Authority headquarters on the Camden waterfront.
He also left a large portfolio in Philadelphia. It ranges from the cartoonish Eagles NovaCare practice facility near the sports complex, with its flattened billboard of a facade, to Temple University's bloated Alter Hall. You can also see a flattened pediment on the pavilion he designed for the Sporting Club on Broad Street.