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The architect Michael Graves, who died Thursday at his home in Princeton, N.J., at the age of 80, had an especially distinctive voice—one dedicated to a deeply personal exploration of classical forms and an unflagging belief in humanistic traditions even when such notions fell hopelessly out of fashion.
Few careers can claim to be as productive; Mr. Graves had over 350 buildings and some 2,000 products to his name. From his cake-white and keystone ornamented Portland Building (1982) in Oregon to the blue-handled Alessi tea kettle with the red bird whistle (1985), he aimed to make design approachable at every scale. Ultimately, he became more famous to the general population—especially those who shopped at Target, for whom he designed products for more than 15 years—than emulated by fellow professionals. In an early essay, “A Case for Figurative Architecture” (1982), he argued for “the poetic forms of architecture” and for buildings that allow for “the three dimensional expression of the myths and rituals of society.”
While Mr. Graves was often labeled a postmodernist, to his dismay, his classical interests were not really about resuscitating shapes from the past, but more about injecting fresh juice into familiar and appealing forms. In fact, he was one of the prominent young New York architects in the 1960s espousing a return to the aesthetic purity of modernism. The group became known as the New York Five, and included Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk. ….