communicating design

Ellen Lupton photographed by Christina Chahyadi.

Ellen Lupton (born 1963) is Curator Emerita at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. She worked at the museum from 1992 – 2022. Her exhibitions included Herbert Bayer: Bauhaus Master and The Senses: Design Beyond Vision. In addition to her work as a curator, Ellen has authored and co-authored numerous books about graphic design, including Thinking with Type, Design Is Storytelling, Graphic Design Thinking, Health Design Thinking, and Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers. She teaches in the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA), where she serves as the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: When did your interest in design start – specifically in typography? 

ELLEN LUPTON: I attended the Cooper Union in New York City in the early 1980s. At the time, there wasn’t much general knowledge of design. I took a “commercial art” class in high school, where I created some posters and lettering, but it was very limited. I was curious about alternative careers for an artist, but I didn’t have much information. When I showed up at Cooper Union, the foundation year included a 2D design class taught by George Sadek, an emigre from Czechoslovakia. George had a strong modernist bent but also a taste for Dada humor. 

As a student, I discovered that typography is a link between art and language. At the time, Jenny Holzer, Barabara Kruger, and other post-minimalist artists were using language, print, and communication in their work. I also learned about experimental typography, which I saw in the “French Letters” issue of Visible Language journal, created by students at Cranbrook. Abbott Miller (my husband and graphic designer) and I were both students at Cooper, and we explored art, design, and critical writing together. Cooper didn’t have strict divisions between disciplines, so we were able to move freely among design, painting, sculpture, research, and writing. It was an amazing experience.

LŠ: As a trained designer you approached the curatorial field from a different perspective – how did your educational training influence your work? 

EL: In the fine arts, most curators have PhD’s in Art History. Design curators come from more diverse backgrounds because the field is much smaller. My direct practical knowledge has helped me create more accessible and experiential exhibitions. An exhibition isn’t a scholarly book! It’s a sensory journey and an opportunity for storytelling. Design skills allow me to work more fluidly—and quickly—than an academically trained curator. I can also design publications with tremendous ease—it’s almost like magic! As a curator, being a designer has been a kind of secret superpower.

LŠ: Cooper Union Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, was your first employer – where you started your career. Could you tell us about the state of design exhibitions back in the day? What were you interested in changing? 

EL: I was hired to help run the Herb Lubalin Study Center right after I graduated from college. I was 22 years old and didn’t know anything about exhibitions or being a curator. The Lubalin Center had a small budget, a small collection, and a small gallery. I jumped in and did the best I could! Some of the exhibition concepts came from the school’s leadership, such as shows about Massimo Vignelli, Ivan Chermayeff, Jaqueline Casey, and Seymour Chwast but I could also develop my shows, such as “Global Signage: The Language of International Pictures” and “Metafont.” I was determined to create publications for nearly every exhibition. These low-cost print pieces, designed with unusual formats, raised the profile of the gallery. I sent them out to everyone on the New York AIGA mailing list. Creatively combining publications and exhibitions has always been important to me.

LŠ: Could you tell us more about the Design/Writing/ Research, that you co-founded with your partner, designer J. Abbott Miller. How did you start and what was your vision? 

EL: Abbott and I became close friends when we were students at Cooper Union, and we continued to collaborate after we graduated in 1985. We both lived in the East Village, a block from campus. We created Design Writing Research as an after-hours extension of our college experiments. We were interested in how visual practice and writing overlap. We created posters for architecture conferences and identities for galleries. We also wrote essays about design history and theory for Emigre and other publications. Abbott soon quit his day job and made Design Writing Research his full-time business focus. We kept collaborating on books and exhibitions. (We got married in 1990.)

LŠ: In 1992, you joined Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum as the curator of contemporary design. How do you see the difference between art, design, and architecture exhibitions? Naturally, the different fields are today blended but often the exhibitions of singular disciplines still have distinct characteristics due to the nature of the work they are conveying. 

EL: Art exhibitions are an established genre, dominating the top of the cultural pyramid. Architecture exhibitions tend to be technical and scholarly because architectural history has a deep academic pedigree. Design is a younger field. There is more room for play in design exhibitions. The artifacts are less precious. People want to touch and interact. Design exhibitions explore function, social history, and design processes. They illuminate the everyday. Design exhibitions also showcase experimental design practices, which aren’t driven by clients or the mass market. Critical design, speculative design, and “design art” thrive in exhibitions.

Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1993. Exhibition curated by Ellen Lupton. Designed by Laurene and Constantin Boym. Photo by Bill Jacobson.
Elaine Lustig Cohen, Modern Graphic Designer. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1996. Exhibition curated and designed by Ellen Lupton. Photo by Bill Jacobson.

LŠ: Perhaps we could also revisit some of your favorite exhibitions realised at the institution. 

EL: My favorite exhibition at Cooper Hewitt was The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, which opened in 2018. I co-curated this show with my amazing colleague Andrea Lipps. We set out to explore multisensory design work, from practical products to playful installations. The exhibition was full of interactive experiences and beautiful products, projects, videos, and more (could you add here the works that spoke to you?). Wendy Evans Joseph designed the gorgeous installation. We sought to make the exhibition accessible to people with sensory disabilities and we collaborated with blind designer and engineer Sina Bahram to create accessible exhibition labels. The beautiful book we published with Princeton Architectural Press is much more than an exhibition catalogue—it’s manual for sensory design.

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2018. Exhibition curated by Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps. Designed by Studio Joseph and David Genco. Photo by Matt Flynn.
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2018. Exhibition curated by Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps. Designed by Studio Joseph and David Genco. Photo by Matt Flynn.
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2018. Book by Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps. Designed by David Genco. Photo by David Genco.

LŠ: How do you see the future of museums? Specifically, design museums? 

EL: We associate museums with leisure. People go to museums to relax, learn, and be inspired. Museums also collect and protect culture. They advocate for artists, makers, and communities. This work is hard, and museums today are struggling with finances and the task of undoing colonial harms and histories of exclusion. Design museums occupy a niche in the museum ecosystem between art, science, history, and technology. That’s a fun but fragile place to be. The public doesn’t always understand what it’s all about. Above all, design museums need designers to care about us, and we need to collaborate with designers to craft a relevant and inclusive future.

LŠ: You were instrumental in the start of the Design Triennial at Cooper Hewitt – could you tell us more about the inception and how you see its trajectory since?

EL: Cooper Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian Institution, a network of museums and research centers that serve the American public. The Smithsonian is supported by the US government as well as by private donors. Over twenty years ago, Cooper Hewitt created the Triennial to celebrate American design. Later, we expanded it to have a global scope. Future iterations may focus on the Americas. The Triennial has been very successful for Cooper Hewitt. People love to see new design work and learn about new designers. The last Triennial I worked on (with Andrea Lipps in 2015) was devoted to the theme of Beauty. As other curators have taken on Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial, the series has continued to be a flexible vessel for exploring contemporary design.  

Beauty: National Design Triennial, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2016. Exhibition curated by Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton. Photo by Matt Flynn.
Beauty: National Design Triennial, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2016. Exhibition curated by Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton. Photo by Matt Flynn.

LŠ: You are known as an avid follower of the DIY movement. How do you see the future of design with DIY?

EL: DIY is in my blood. I’m a curator and writer who can use practical design skills to make exhibitions, books, events, online courses, and more. My ability to create both content and form has fueled my creative process for over thirty years. For a graphic designer, the essence of DIY is this: the direct manipulation of content. Write it, shape it, make it, publish it. From lived experience, I know that people can advance their visions with design. The digital revolution—from Photoshop to Canva to Midjourney—keeps putting creative tools in the hands of people who don’t identify primarily as designers or artists. Design belongs to everyone.