The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Michael Graves

The post-modern American architect Michael Graves, who has died aged 80, injected a childlike exuberance into his buildings and product designs, said Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian. He sampled motifs from classical architecture, clothing his buildings in historical fancy-dress in an attempt to bring back wit and meaning to architecture, against the po-faced austerity of modernism. But to some, the jokes fell flat.

His Portland Building in Oregon (1982) was unlike anything that had gone before, a boxy office block clad with oversized red pilasters and blue tinted windows, topped with a gigantic keystone and a pair of projecting corbels, all perched on a monumental turquoise plinth. ‘It’s not architecture, it is packaging,’ said the Italian modernist architect Pietro Belluschi. But the architectural historian Charles Jencks said that ‘with all its faults it still is the first to show that one can build with art, ornament and symbolism on a grand scale, and in a language the inhabitants understand.’

He designed a series of houses that revelled in their playful historical allusions. His Snyderman House in Fort Wayne (1972) stood as a deconstructed cluster of pastel-coloured rooms, while his Plocek House in New Jersey (1977) evokes an Italian palazzo, with a missing keystone that reappears as a pavilion in the garden.

In 1985 his plan to extend Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum in New York was abandoned, but the same year he produced the ‘whistling bird’ kettle for Alessi, which has sold more than two million. His whimsical consumer products brought design to the mass market. But his populism came at a cost to his reputation, said the Daily Telegraph, though Graves was unapologetic about his work for Disney, which included kitsch hotels and the Disney Studios in Burbank (1990) that incorporated 19ft-high terracotta dwarfs as caryatids holding up a classical pediment.