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Look Both Ways: Inside Debbie Millman’s Exhibition at Pop-Up Chicago Design Museum


(Photos courtesy Debbie Millman)

A gust of great design is blowing through the Windy City as the Chicago Design Museum welcomes visitors through June 30. Created by Mark Dudlik and Tanner Woodford, the 6,000-square-foot Humboldt Park pop-up—complete with a gift shop called “Ignorance & Ambition“—is part of Lost Creature, a non-profit that aims to bridge culture and creativity with community projects. The museum’s five concurrent exhibitions spotlight a range of design work, from hand-painted signage and IBM icons to Ed Fella’s spirited flyers and posters and the illustrated essays of Debbie Millman. The indefatigatable AIGA president emeritus, Design Matters host, and Sterling Brands honcho talked with us about the exhibit following last week’s opening bash.

How did you get involved with the Chicago Design Museum?
I met Tanner Woodford and Mark Dudlik when they were taking the Phoenix design scene by storm with their involvement in the Arizona Chapter of AIGA and with their creation of Phoenix Design Week. Their talent and entrepreneurship blew me away, and I sensed that they were on to something BIG. After the massive success of their pop-up Phoenix Design Museum, they moved onto Chicago. Tanner had been asking if he could show my work as part of the debut exhibit of the Chicago Design Museum and I thought I was dreaming. I have been riding their coattails ever since.

For those who aren’t familiar with your visual essays, what are they and how did you come to start making them?
Visual storytelling—the art of using language and images to convey a narrative account of real or fictional events—is something I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember. I started creating visual essays in the early 1990s when I expanded from painting words to painting stories. My best friend, a painter and art dealer named Katharine Umsted, urged me to insure that when creating art with words, the quality of every illustration must be comparable to the quality of the writing. She helped me understand that neither discipline could overwhelm or dilute the impression of the other; both needed to be fully integrated. This helped me take each element of the essays with equal care and dedication. After a big exhibit at Long Island University in 1992, I all but abandoned my artwork to focus on my day job and a commercial career. My non-visual essays re-emerged when I started writing monologues for my podcast, Design Matters, beginning in 2005.

And how did you find your way back to the illustrated essays?
After taking a class with Milton Glaser in the summer of 2005, I set out to try to make some lost dreams come true. So I wrote a letter to Megan Patrick, acquisitions editor of HOW Books, with the idea to create a book of visual essays based on my monologues. Six weeks later, I had a book deal and one year later Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design came out. Worried that I would stop making visual essays without a forced deadline, I asked Aaron Kenedi, former Editor in Chief of Print magazine, if I could contribute a visual essay once a month on the Imprint site. He said yes, and for the last two years, I have been contributing a (nearly) monthly piece. Most of the work for the show at the Chicago Design Museum comes from this endeavor.

The Chicago exhibition, “Debbie Millman: Look Both Ways,” includes five large-scale visual essays. How did you select which ones to include?
I only wanted to include work in this show that had not been published in Look Both Ways, so I had the 20 or so pieces from Imprint and a few other creative endeavors to choose from. My criteria was this: They had to be what I considered were my best pieces, work that I felt would look good living next to each other, and they had to fit in the space. They are all similar in that they are highly personal stories about various experiences in my life.

The show also includes two “graphic films.” Tell us about those.
I came to drawing movies quite by accident; my first attempt, Watching Beginners was inspired by the actual illustrations featured in Mike Mills’ award-winning film. Five minutes into the film, I was overtaken by the need to start drawing (the movie is about an illustrator and graphic designer). I drew isolated visuals from the plot as I watched, live and in real time, without erasing, editing, or stopping. I filled an entire Moleskin notebook in one sitting. After the experience, I decided to try my hand at the medium again. I waited for what I considered to be the “right” film: one with snappy dialogue, exotic surroundings, and a highly emotional plot. The Descendants seemed to meet all the criteria. I ordered it on-demand and set up to draw nonstop. But this film proved to be more difficult, and I needed to pause several times: once when I had to draw a difficult hospital scene, and a second time when the dialogue flew by too fast. But other than that, I drew in real time, albeit a little slower than before.

Any ideas as to future graphic film fodder?
I plan on drawing We Need To Talk About Kevin next. I’ve actually already seen it, but the story was so disturbing and the visuals have been so burned into my memory, I am hoping that drawing the movie will alleviate the intensity.

And finally, there are a collection of what you describe as “ceramic experiments” on view. What does a ceramic experiment look like?
I have started to design towels and wrapping paper for One Kings Lane and I’ve truly enjoyed it. My cousin, Ben Shuts, is a master ceramist and I thought it would be fun to collaborate with him. We took very traditional four-inch-by-four-inch tiles and I wrote and drew on them. Then we hid them all over the museum.

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