Michael Graves: Biography, Architecture & Designs

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

In this lesson, learn about Michael Graves, a brilliant architect and thinker who defected from the modern school and spent his life making structures and products full of whimsy and personality.

Michael Graves: Biography, Architecture, and Design

Imagine walking into a multi-story building and the first thing you see is a reception area that is beige and gray. Nothing very memorable or innovative about that, is there? That's what Michael Graves thought about modern architecture, and he made it his mission in life to be the opposite of forgettable. And one look at the façade of the Team Disney building--which is held up by none other than the seven dwarves--reveals that Graves more than accomplished his mission. This innovative designer objected to the lifeless nature of modern architecture and his career is defined by his desire to put the humanity back into everything he designed.


Michael Graves was born in 1934 in Indianapolis, Ind., and was drawn to art as a child. His mother told him that, short of being better than Picasso, there was no money in art, and she offered him a choice between engineering and architecture. After his mother told him what engineers do, Graves replied, 'Well, I guess I'll be an architect.' She responded that she had not told him what architects do, but Graves had heard enough to know he didn't want to be an engineer.

He started at the University of Cincinnati and was noticed for his intricate and detailed designs. Graves was accepted to Harvard University in the 1950s. Just after he graduated in 1959, he won the Rome Prize and traveled to Italy to study architecture, which left a lasting impression on him. Upon his return, Graves began work as an architect with five famous architects called 'the New York Five.' These architects were inspired by Le Corbusier's modern design, which dictated that structures should be clean and functional, not gaudy and decorated.


Unite d Habitation by Le Corbusier displays his clean, modern approach to design.
Le Corbusier Unite D Habitation

During the 1980s, Graves rejected the modernism of the New York Five and dove into postmodern and commercial architecture. He was fed up with the uninviting and cold modernist designs that frowned on decoration and color as 'unnecessary,' so he set out to capture whimsy, wonder, and humanness in the spaces he designed. Just compare buildings like Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation with any of Graves' work, and you will quickly see how Graves was rejecting the coldness and sterility of modernism.

The Portland Municipal Building was one of the first significant buildings Graves designed.
Portland Municipal Building

His earliest work in this area is the Oregon Municipal Building in Portland. In 1982, Graves oversaw the underfunded construction on the site and developed a style that broke with modern tradition. Portland wanted to avoid creating a boring and standard look to office structures, and the city wanted to please civil servants who had been vocal about poor materials used in past buildings. The building was a huge success--together, the Oregon Municipal Building and Graves' Humana Building in Louisville (1985) changed the look and feel of office buildings forever. Graves felt that modern buildings were not connected to their locations and treated local color as 'unnecessary.' To combat this, he brought as much of these local and cultural flourishes into his work.

Graves wanted the Humana Building in Louisville to be connected to its location.
Humana Building in Louisville

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