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Prominent American architect Michael Graves, who had Target goods line, dies

--Architect Michael Graves in his apartment overlooking Ocean Drive in 2007. He designed 1500 Ocean Dr. in Miami Beach. Graves was being honored by the Wolfsonian.
--Architect Michael Graves in his apartment overlooking Ocean Drive in 2007. He designed 1500 Ocean Dr. in Miami Beach. Graves was being honored by the Wolfsonian. Miami Herald File

Celebrated architect Michael Graves, who designed buildings across the globe, including a condo tower in South Beach and the Swan and Dolphin hotels at Walt Disney World, and whimsical teakettles and toasters for Target, died Thursday at his Princeton, New Jersey, home. He was 80.

Graves died of natural causes at his home in Princeton, spokeswoman Michelle DiLello said. He taught at Princeton University for many years.

The American architect made his name in the 1980s, popularizing a new kind of architecture, admirers of his work said.

“Michael Graves was a kind of giant of the period of architecture called postmodernism, when architects around the 1980s looked back to European design precedence,” said Pauline Saliga, the director of the Society of Architectural Historians. “They kind of rejected the sterility of modernism. They were looking for other design inspirations.”

Graves designed hundreds of buildings around the world. But his most famous might be The Portland Building, the city administrative building in Portland, Oregon, and The Humana Building, a 26-story skyscraper in Louisville, Kentucky.

Those buildings, which opened in 1982, and others used a variety of colors and shapes and have eccentric juts in and out a little like Lego creations.

Graves also designed a campus master plan for Rice University in Houston, the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World and the scaffolding for the Washington Monument when it was renovated in the late 1990s so it would remain attractive throughout the work.

In South Florida, he is known for designing 1500 Ocean — known as the “Michael Graves Building — a 15-story condo at the north tip of the Art Deco strip, complete with wavy railings.

A part-time resident of the Beach, Graves, by then wheelchair-bound because of a viral infection that attacked his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down in 2003, waxed effusively about the city from his perch atop the 15-story condo tower he designed.

“Here is a place that is completely packed with people all day long and all night long. It’s fabulous, in the United States of America, to have a spot like this,’’ Graves said in a 2008 Miami Herald feature.

He also designed an entrepreneurial center at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus and was a visiting critic at UM’s architecture school. Two years ago, Graves and Frank Martinez, an associate professor of architecture, taught students in Rome at UM’s architecture program there. Early in his career, Graves had won the Rome Prize and studied there for two years.

“It was his favorite place in the world to go,’’ said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the former dean of UM’s architecture school and who is now the Malcolm Matheson Distinguished Professor of Architecture at UM. “We were planning to do it again in the fall.

“He knew how to elicit the best performance from every student.’’

President Bill Clinton awarded Graves the National Medal of Arts in 1999, and the American Institute of Architects gave him its gold medal, the highest award for an architect, in 2001.

Later in life, Graves started designing signature household items such as teakettles and toasters for Minneapolis-based Target Corp., and he added a line at JCPenney. Those items brought a famous architect into the kitchens and bathrooms of millions of homes.

Graves’ Alessi kettle, featuring a spout with a bird that sings when the water boils, is part of a series of popular Alessi-style items including pitchers and kitchen timers.

“The Target guys looked at me and said, ‘Blue handles? Nobody is going to buy that. They want black and gray.’ But designing for a kitchen is not the same thing as designing for the tomb. If I went for fun in the tomb and seriousness in a can opener, I’d be a mess. We went with the color, and things flew off the shelves,’’ he told the Herald.

“He was one of the most famous and important architects in America for many years, whose work transcended architecture and really made Target’s products famous,’’ said former Miami Herald architecture critic Beth Dunlop on Thursday evening.

In an ever-changing, youth-driven popular culture where one can find people who can't name the four Beatles, “Almost everyone who ever shopped at Target knows who Michael Graves was. Almost everyone who ever went to Disney World knows who he was,” Dunlop said.

For his work, Graves was honored by the The Wolfsonian-FIU. “I think he has raised awareness about design in the mass audience more than anybody else,” Cathy Leff, the Washington Avenue institution's former director said in 2008. “His products really engage people to think about the objects that they live with.”

After the illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down, he began a third career, designing for people with disabilities. He designed a wheelchair, added color to hospital rooms and designed accessible homes for the Wounded Warrior Project.

He said in 2009 he liked his designers to spend time in wheelchairs while working on certain products so they’d know what it’s like.

“That understanding of being in the wheelchair and strapping you in and not being able to get out of it is a very, very good experience,” he said.

He was recognized by another president for this work when President Barack Obama named him to the U.S. Access Board in 2013.

Graves, born in Indianapolis, studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University. He won the Rome Prize in 1960 and spent two years studying in Italy.

After he returned to the U.S., he began a four-decade career teaching at Princeton University.

His firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design, based in Princeton and New York, said it would carry forward his traditions.

“Of all of his accomplishments, Michael often said that, like his own family, his proudest creation was his firm,” it said in a statement. “As we go forward in our practice, we will continue to honor Michael’s humanistic design philosophy through our commitment to creating unique design solutions that transform people’s lives.”

Miami Herald obituary writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.

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