Michael Graves, the celebrated postmodern architect who passed away last week at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 80, was a weird one.

Not that Indiana-born Graves himself was a particularly eccentric man. What’s unusual — and remarkable — about Graves is how he built a highly successful 50-year career around, well, being all over the place.

And he was great at it. Really great.

Graves was a different man to different people: a pioneering and highly influential architect who designed 350 buildings of all sorts across the globe; an industrial design heavyweight whose name was attached to over 2,000 household items; a wheelchair-bound champion of universal design who strived to “humanize” architecture for all people. To others, Graves was he was a quintessential New Jersey resident: impassioned, outspoken and a man about town in Princeton, where he lived, taught and presided over his eponymous architecture firm which he founded in 1964.

Democratizing design through tableware

Graves held the somewhat strange distinction of being a non-household name designer of household products — that is, he was the first established architect-turned-industrial designer to truly democratize quality design and bring it to the big box store-shopping masses.

Michael Grave's 9093 kettle for AlessiIt all started in 1985 when Graves “put a bird on it” for the instantly iconic 9093 Kettle.

While said teakettle, produced by Italian design house Alessi, isn’t exactly cheap, it’s a hugely important work that proves even established architects can successfully dabble with mass-market consumer products.

Most important, the 9093 Kettle paved the way for Graves’ best-known non-architectural work: the thousands of household products — toaster ovens, dustpans, colanders, soap dispensers, lamps, fans, teakettles and so much more — his firm designed for Target from 1999 to 2012.

Graves’ formal working relationship with Target actually began in 1997 with the restoration of the Washington Monument, a public-private undertaking spearheaded by the retailer in partnership with the National Park Service. Graves’ firm was commissioned by Target and the Park Service to create the scaffolding that wrapped around the 554-foot-tall obelisk.

WashingtonMonumentScaffold Some actually liked the Washington Monument wrapped in Michael Graves-designed scaffolding more than without it. (Photo: brownpau/flickr)

Graves’ 13-year partnership with Minneapolis-based Target was the first and most long-lasting design collaboration for the retailer which, of course, now regularly teams-up with bold-face names and emerging talents from the worlds of fashion and the home design for special one-off (Missoni, Ora Kieley, et al.) and ongoing (Nate Berkus, Izaac Mizrahi, et al.) collections. The odd thing about Graves and his work for Target was that, at least in the early years, most consumers didn’t know that the name attached to the whimsical toaster oven was also a giant of postmodern architecture.

In 2013, Graves followed Ron Johnson, the executive who had first brought him into the fold at Target in the late 1990s, to J.C. Penney. For JCP, Graves introduced a line of higher-end home goods (think: au gratin dishes, wine decanters and champagne flute sets) to help the flailing department store’s transformation from mom jean emporium-cum-portrait studio to trendy place to shop. The rebranding, which aliented the retailer's core customer base and led to plummeting sales, was a notorious retail failure. In April 2013, Johnson was ousted from the company after less than two years on the job. Graves stuck around.

Graves told Bloomberg in 2013: "I liked the idea of helping this store start over. And we’d get a shop within a store. The design challenge now is different. You’d smell a rat if we repeated the products we did for Target. I’m not interested in doing that. At JCP, we’re at a higher price point. We’ve done a toaster that I love — its finish, its shape. It looks like a piece of bread. The Target one was white plastic. This one is polished stainless steel."

A celebrated (and not-so-celebrated) postmodern rock star

In his architectural work, Harvard-educated Graves also held a strange distinction: the building largely considered as his masterpiece, the Portland Building, is also one of the most hated-on works of architecture not only in downtown Portland, Oregon, but in the entire world. In fact, the dreaded “D” word — demolish — has been floated by in recent years.

Costing $29 million to build, the 15-story municipal office building was a bona fide hit when completed in 1982 — an award-winning landmark work of postmodern architecture and an exuberant breath of fresh air in a city largely defined by grey skies and grey buildings. With its cream, salmon and blue façade, diminutive windows and attention-grabbing ornamental flourishes, Graves’ playfully rebellious design isn’t timeless but, rather, very much a product of the 1980s. And like many once-beloved products of the 80s, the Portland Building hasn’t aged so well.

And it’s not just an issue of outdated aesthetics. In addition to its “comically dated exterior,” structural issues have long plagued the Portland Building much to the chagrin of those who must work in it.

PortlandBuilding The Portland Building, a towering (and detested) work of postmodern architecture. (Photo: joevare/flickr)

In a February 2014 op-ed piece for the Oregonian in which the Portland Building is referred to as being both “too weird for even ‘Portlandia’” and “something designed by a Third World dictator’s mistress’s art-student brother,” columnist David Sarasohn addresses the myriad interior issues with the structure:

For a public building charged with making a statement to its citizens and taxpayers, it had a distinctly unwelcoming lobby resembling a public rest room — and not one of the classier facilities, but something on the sketchier parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The lobby required some reconstruction after just eight years, an embarrassing situation for a municipal building standing next to a City Hall more than a century old. (You always had the feeling that the Portland Building was an edifice that other buildings giggled about.) Worse, the building had small windows and bad lighting, seemed to have uneven floors and to leak. It’s one thing to Keep Portland Weird; you don’t necessarily want to keep Portland workers wet. Nobody ever considered it a good place to work – although in fairness, it can be a good place to park, a curious honor in a city that prides itself on its commitment to alternative transport.

Faced with a $95 million repair bill to correct the Portland Building’s structural problems and other issues, some city leaders and Portlanders have voiced that they’d rather just see tower, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, razed.

Graves, who blames the building’s interior structural problems and cramped work spaces on the city itself, fiercely defended his work and rallied for it to be modernized and preserved instead of bulldozed into oblivion.

“Three-hundred-fifty buildings, and I don't have this treatment anywhere else ... Usually when I revisit buildings, it's to get the keys to the city. Here, there are tomatoes for sale,” he noted during a public conversation about the building’s fate in October 2014. “The whole idea of tearing the building down, it's like killing a child. I don't know how to react to that."

Graves’ other well-known works of postmodern architecture have been decidedly less controversial: the Humana Building in St. Louis (1985), the Denver Public Library (1990), the Indianapolis Arts Center (1996) and Castalia (1998), a governmental building in The Hague, Netherlands, are all career highlights.

The architect's whimsical, some would say aggressively whimsical, sensibility also found a kindred spirit in the form of the Walt Disney Company. Graves' firm oversaw the design of a handful of Disney properties throughout the1980s including Walt Disney World sister hotels, the Swan and Dolphin Resorts (both 1987), and the Team Disney Building (1986) in Burbank, California. Structural support for the latter building is provided by the Seven Dwarves.

Despite his firm’s international reach, a decent builk of Michael Graves’ work, private residential commissions included, is located throughout New Jersey including on the Princeton University campus.

DophinHotel The Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando. (Photo: Michael Graves Design & Architecture)

DisneyTeamBuilding Burbank's Disney Team Building. (Photo: Michael Graves Design & Architecture)

DenverPublicLibrary The Denver Public Library, Central Branch (Photo: Jason Westly Upton/flickr)

Illness, recovery and a new mission

In 2003, Graves, still very much a globetrotter at the age of 68, was temporarily sidelined by a viral infection that started in his sinuses and eventually reached his spinal cord. The infection left the architect paralyzed from the waist down. Restricted to a wheelchair, the paralysis didn’t slow Graves down or force him into an early retirement. Rather, it energized him. As a result, he spun off into an entirely new direction while still maintaining big architectural commissions and product design work for Target.

For the last decade of his career, Graves acted as a tireless champion of universal design — that is, design that accommodates all people, included the elderly and those with disabilities. Focused on improving healthcare facilities, rehab centers and private homes for the physically handicapped, Graves’ later-career work is perhaps his most important: St. Colleta of Greater Washington, a nonprofit charter school in Washington, D.C., for students with autism and severe/multiple disabilities; the Center for Restorative Care at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut; Omaha's Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital; and the Wounded Warrior Home Project, a series of “barrier-free” transitional residences for combat veterans at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Graves also redesigned his own home, an art-strewn renovated warehouse in Princeton, to better accommodate his needs as a paraplegic.

This new focus — the life-bettering power of smart design — also influenced his product design output. In recent years, Graves designed an innovative, next-gen wheelchair along with an array of consumer health products including adjustable tub rails, heating pads and canes with integrated carrier bags. Graves also teamed with Kimberly-Clark for Better Life By Design, a "human-centered" product collection" intended to celebrate aging for what it really is: filled with spirit, possibilities, and growth."

St.Coletta St. Coletta of Greater Washington. (Photo: Michael Graves Design & Architecture)

WoundedWarriorHome The Wounded Warrior Homes Project. (Photo: Michael Graves Design & Architecture)

GravesWheelchair The Prime TC Hospital Chair for Stryker. (Photo: Michael Graves Design & Architecture)

“I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” Graves told the Washington Post in July 2014, noting that “beauty can reduce stress and make us feel better.”

Graves’ hospital bed-hopping experiences during his own two-year recovery process greatly influenced his mission to bring colorful, uplifting design to otherwise drab, morale-deflating healthcare facilities: “Who wants to recover in a place where everything is beige?” he asked.

In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Graves to a high-ranking administrative post on the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.

Remarked Graves this past summer: “Since my paralysis did not take away my ability to design and in fact has, if anything, made me a better designer, I remain whole and now I wake up every day with a full appreciation for life, and with a passion to use my ordeal and newfound perspective to make a lasting contribution.”

“Past as Prologue,” a 50-year retrospective celebrating the indelible mark Michael Graves has had on architecture and design, can currently be seen at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. The exhibition runs through April 5.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

The lasting legacy of universal design champion Michael Graves
Famous for his Target kitchen gadgets and an abhorred Oregon office building, the late humanist architect also promoted healing through good design.