As Walker Art Center’s design curator for 21 years, Mildred “Mickey” Friedman shaped the city’s skyline while winning international attention for the Minneapolis museum and launching a generation of acclaimed architects, including Frank Gehry.

Working in tandem with her husband, Martin, who was director of the Walker, she made it “America’s leading museum of design,” Architectural Record magazine said in a 1990 tribute when the couple retired.

Friedman, 85, died Wednesday at their home in New York City. Her husband of 65 years announced the news in an e-mail to friends.

The Friedmans’ long and unusual partnership at the Minneapolis museum was grounded in mutual respect and consummate professionalism. “We often disagree, I can tell you that,” she once said. “He lets me run my department pretty much as I wish, but if there’s something he disagrees with, he tells me, and I do what he says. After all, I work for him and he’s a tough boss.”

Alluding to the design department’s location in the museum then, her husband once joked that their professional relationship succeeded because “Mickey and I kept six floors of concrete between us.”

Her Walker exhibitions were widely influential, ranging from a design analysis of Herman Miller furniture to groundbreaking studies of American graphic design and the revolutionary 20th-century Dutch art movement De Stijl. The latter show, in 1982, was heralded by the New York Times as a “major contribution … to our appreciation of the entire European avant-garde in the period between the two World Wars.”

Shaping the Twin Cities

Friedman also set a high standard for urban design in the Twin Cities, not only through her provocative shows but with her work on urban issues from skyway design to the reconfiguration of Hennepin Avenue.

As an informal adviser to corporate leaders, she shaped the Twin Cities by suggesting architects for landmark projects including Philip Johnson at IDS Center, César Pelli at Norwest Tower (now Wells Fargo), Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer at Orchestra Hall and Kohn Pedersen Fox at the St. Paul Companies’ headquarters.

“Mickey was instrumental in defining the architectural landscape of the Twin Cities by connecting patrons to architects,” said Dan Avchen, chief executive of HGA Architects and Engineers. “She was the design maven of the Twin Cities for many years and she had a huge impact — huge.”

Her 1986 exhibition of Gehry’s work sparked a career breakthrough. The next year his famed Winton Guest House opened in Orono and in 1990 he was commissioned to design the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Friedman believed that people could only understand architecture by experiencing it. So she reinvented architectural exhibitions, turning them from staid drawing shows into lively 3-D experiences often designed by the architects themselves. Besides Gehry, she championed such architects as Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio.

Her shows typically included recreations of lost architectural spaces — such as a 1920s De Stijl cabaret — or full-scale architect-designed rooms such as the lead-covered, walk-through fish whose belly contained Gehry-designed lamps.

“In Mickey’s hands, a design show was never simply about a subject, but drew upon the principles and power of design itself to create a compelling experience,” wrote Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s current design curator, in a tribute.

California roots

Raised in Los Angeles, Mildred Shenberg  studied design and art history at UCLA where she met her future husband. They married in 1949.

After graduating, she taught design at Los Angeles City College. The Friedmans moved to Minneapolis in 1958 when he was hired as a Walker curator and she began work as an interior designer at Cerny Associates, a now-defunct architectural firm.  She joined the Walker’s staff as a design consultant in 1969 and planned the interiors of the museum’s brick-clad 1971 building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Though worried at first about nepotism, Walker board members quickly found Mickey to be “every bit the pro that Martin is,” the late Mike Winton, a longtime board member, once said.

She and her husband constantly bounced ideas off each other and sometimes collaborated on projects such as “Tokyo: Form and Spirit,” a 1986 show for which they commissioned 11 Japanese designers and architects to create visionary interpretations of traditional Japanese concepts.

“Martin and Mickey were an incredible couple who led Walker Art Center with greatest distinction, leaving an unforgettable legacy for the artistic world,” said philanthropist Judy Dayton, a longtime friend and former Walker board president.

She also organized conferences, edited the Walker’s influential Design Quarterly magazine, and oversaw design of the museum’s catalogs, brochures and signage.

But it was her personal warmth that especially endeared her to friends and colleagues, said Martin Filler, architecture critic at the New York Review of Books.

“She was wise, compassionate and philosophical about the often difficult personalities she encountered in the design world. When I was having particular difficulty with one of them, she calmly told me, ‘Oh, Martin. Don’t you know they’re all like that?’ ”

After the couple retired to Manhattan, she curated shows for the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, consulted for the Battery Park City Authority and worked with Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She continued to write, edit and contribute to books on architecture and design — the most recent, “Frank Gehry: The Houses,” in 2009.

Survivors include three daughters, Lise of New York, Ceil of Verona, Italy, and Zoe of Seattle, their spouses and six grandchildren.