Painter grew up in Southern California, working part-time for the design-build firm Hahn & Hoffman while still in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956, followed by a master’s degree in urban design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design a decade later. While at Berkeley, Painter was recommended for a part-time job with Lawrence Halprin & Associates (LH&A) by faculty member Mai Arbegast. Painter would join LH&A full-time after graduation. He also worked with John Carl Warnecke & Associates and for a brief time with landscape architect Peter E. Walker before founding his own firm, Michael Painter & Associates, in 1969 (the firm was renamed MPA Design in 1984).
Painter completed more than 850 projects over the course of his career. Among his well-known projects was a proposal to replace Doyle Drive, an elevated roadway through the Presidio National Park that connected the Golden Gate Bridge with the city’s street grid. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake compromised the roadway’s structural integrity, Painter proposed replacing it with a tunnel underneath the park. Over the next 25 years, he collaborated with the California Department of Transportation to realize this vision in what would become the Presidio Parkway, completed in 2017.
Painter’s other notable projects in the Bay Area include the AT&T Administrative Center, the Genentech Campus, the HP Corporate Headquarters, and the Great Highway/Ocean Beach Re-Construction. Committed to community service, he served on the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Board and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Advisory Committee (SPUR). Painter was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1987. He died of cancer at his home in Mill Valley, California, in June 2018.