In Memoriam: Prolific Architect & Designer Michael Graves (1934–2015)

March 16, 2015

Michael Graves, one of the most prominent American architects of the latter 20th century, and also a prolific designer, passed away on March 12th, at the age of 80. Through his high profile projects such as the Humana Corporation healthcare headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky; the Portland Building in Oregon; and the Denver Central Library; Graves established himself as the nation’s leading exponent of postmodernism. His designs wedded sleek modernist lines to brightly colored materials with classical architectural references, and the the occasional touch of playfulness. (A notable feature of his Team Disney Building in Burbank are caryatid-style supports shaped as the Seven Dwarfs.)

Lot 305, Michael Graves, Teapot, Designed 2000

Michael Graves, Teapot, Designed 2000
February 23, 2014, Modern Art & Design Auction

Graves was one of the famous New York Five, an informal group of modernist architects, of which Richard Meier is also a member. Collectors prize his early 1980s furniture pieces, such as the Plaza vanity and  Stanhope bed–each riff on Art Deco stylizations–from when he was a member of the Milan-based Memphis design collective; as well as his Swid Powell china. Graves will be remembered the world over for his fun designs for everyday use. His populist line for Target include many housewares at affordable prices; and he designed more than 150 items for Alessi, of which the whistling bird teakettle is now a timeless icon. Words from the Michael Graves Architecture & Design firm website relate a funny tale. Graves once received a postcard from a French poet, who wrote, “I’m always very grumpy when I get up in the morning. But when I get up now, I put the teakettle on, and when it starts to sing it makes me smile–damn you!”

Since 2003, Graves had been largely confined to a wheelchair, after having been paralyzed from a spinal infection. He was an advocate of healthcare design–and created home products and furnishings better suited for hospitals and the disabled population. He often injected his designs for health care facilities with a gentler, less institutional aesthetic. His answer as to why he used so much color in hospital room decor: “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.”

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