Michael Graves (1934–2015)

Michael Graves with the GQ Man of the Year Award, c. 1980s. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

MICHAEL GRAVES had a very particular terracotta that he liked to use in his renderings. He preferred a shade of pencil manufactured by Derwent which he then muted slightly with a 10 Percent Cool Gray from Prismacolor. One day he heard that the gray was being discontinued. He promptly rang up the company and bought as many as he could—boxes and boxes full.

As this anecdote about the tools of his trade suggests, Graves was determined to get things just right. No matter what the typology—drawings and models, buildings and interiors, tea kettles and toasters, furniture and fabrics—his works are possessed of complete resolution. Each holds together tightly and brightly, like an exceptionally well-wrapped Christmas present. Yet, like the period in design history that he seemed in so many ways to exemplify, Graves himself is something of a puzzle, hard to assemble into a single picture.

Imagine him first as a dashing young American abroad, sketching ancient monuments on his grand tour to Rome from 1960 to 1962. Then as a visionary theorist of New Urbanism, working alongside Peter Eisenman at Princeton on a grandly unfeasible proposal called the Linear City. This scheme, equal parts Le Corbusier and Superstudio, would have transformed a twenty-mile-long, one-mile-wide ribbon of New Jersey into a unified megalopolis, a completely integrated space for living and working. It would have been hypermodern and ultraefficient. In real life, it would have been terrifying. It also suggests just how fearless and ambitious Graves was when he was just starting out.

Michael Graves, sketch for ‘Linear City,’ c. 1960s. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

In the 1970s, Graves developed into a more reasonable sort of modernist, working mostly at a domestic scale. This was the moment when the New York Five (Graves and Eisenman along with Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier), or “Whites,” had primacy in architectural discourse. It was a time of vivid debate, both among the high modernists and their ideological opponents, the so-called Grays, who advocated a vernacular and contextualist approach. Then came apostasy. In one of the most astonishing turns in architectural history, Graves became the leading practitioner of the historical, ornamental, and allusive style that came to be known (for better or worse) as postmodernism. Though criticized at the time as a retreat into the past, in retrospect Graves’s postmodern work looks astonishingly ahead of the game. Iconic and complexly referential, his buildings of the 1980s seem already primed for viewers armed with the Internet and a smartphone.

Touching down first in unlikely places such as Portland and Louisville, his buildings in the new style radiated sly intelligence, even as they functioned like gigantic corporate logos. Graves was soon flying high, riffing off Art Deco in commissions for Memphis, Alessi, and Sunar, and carrying out a series of major architectural projects for the Disney Corporation. With the help of gallerist Max Protetch he elevated architectural renderings to the status of fine artworks, and was justly celebrated for his extraordinary draftsmanship (with lots of terracotta). But this professional success had an equal and opposite effect on his reputation as a serious architect. Po-mo managed the feat of being simultaneously outrageous and overly familiar. Though Graves’s work was the best of it, he was imitated rampantly, and badly. This stage of his career left an unfair but nonetheless indelible impression of him not as the classicist polymath he really was, but instead as a cartoonist and the signature architect of late capitalism.

Michael Graves, Target Toaster-white, 1989. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

Graves’s later years were marked by populist success and personal tragedy. In his prolific product-design work for Target and JCPenney, the ironies of his career were all in play. Even as he achieved the long-sought modernist goal of bringing good design to the masses, he gave further ammunition to those who suspected he was more interested in commodities than ideas. Finally, following a spinal infection in 2003 that left him partially paralyzed, there emerged yet another Graves, heroic and profoundly humanist. Working from a wheelchair of his own design, he created exquisitely sensitive equipment and environments for the injured, ill, and incapacitated. At a time of life when others might have retired from the field, he continued to affect the lives of many for the better.

Clearly, Graves was a man of many parts. He liked to keep admirers and critics alike in a perpetual state of uncertainty, waiting for his next trick. There are many abiding conflicts at the heart of his work, all of them productive: between purism and populism, erudition and commercialism, historical depth and superficial imagery. That very multiplicity made him the quintessential architect of the late twentieth century, though, and at his best, he synthesized these competing impulses into designs of tremendous imaginative power.

In 1999, Graves devised a scheme to scaffold the Washington Monument during a major renovation. He came up with the idea of shrouding the obelisk in a sheath of blue mesh, emulating its shape and also replicating (in denotative fashion) the pattern of its stone coursing. Particularly at night, when it glowed like a translucent lantern at one end of the National Mall, the artificial facade was absolutely an improvement on the original. This was the elusive dream that animated so much of postmodern thinking: the promise of second-order experience. The great hope was that through metastructures, we might find a way to live within history, without being dominated by its imperatives. Graves’s finest work remains a beacon of that hope: a flash of wit, joy, sometimes even perfection, in a decidedly imperfect present.

Michael Graves, scaffolding for Washington Monument, 1999. Courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

Glenn Adamson is the Nanette L Laitman Director of the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, where Michael Graves formerly served on the board of trustees.