Design Couples: Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller

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By: Caitlin Dover | June 9, 2010

Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller

How did you first meet?

We met as freshmen in college at The Cooper Union in New York City. It was the fall of 1981. We had all of our classes together that year. We were both from out of town–Ellen from Baltimore, Abbott from northwest Indiana, outside of Chicago. A group of us “new New Yorkers” became friends together.

At the time that you first met each other, were you both working in design?

Freshman year, neither of us knew yet if we wanted to be designers. Ellen was into painting, and Abbott was drawn to sculpture and film. We had a required basic design class with George Sadek, a volatile Czech émigré who loved grids, Garamond, and word play.

Where do you live and work now?

Abbott is a partner at Pentagram. Ellen is director of the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA in Baltimore and curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt Museum. We live in Baltimore, and we both travel regularly to New York, where Abbott’s primary office is.

Did either of you influence the other in your choice of discipline?

At Cooper, we both took a lot of design classes but we also pursued our interests in fine arts, writing, and the humanities. We were focused and aggressive in our random sampling, however, and together we pursued an intellectual approach to design that was unusual at the time. We were fascinated with the debates about modernism and post-modernism, and we wanted to look at the structures of graphic design from a cultural and conceptual point of view. We were interested in literary theory, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis. When we graduated from Cooper in 1985, we founded Design Writing Research as an outlet for our joint freelance projects while we both pursued paying day jobs.

How much of your work do you do together? Do you ever collaborate?

We still find opportunities to collaborate. In 2009, we curated an exhibition together called “Design for a Living World,” which opened at Cooper-Hewitt. The exhibition features product prototypes by leading designers using materials from endangered landscapes around the world. We also organized an exhibition at the Fabric Workshop Museum in Philadelphia called “Swarm,” about the art and science of tiny things that gather together to create larger intelligent structures. We have co-authored several books, including “Design Writing Research,” a collection of essays published in 1996 that is still in print from Phaidon.

What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done or created together?

Our beautiful kids, Ruby and Jay!

How do you each think your partner influences your practice, your style, or anything else about how you make design?

Ellen: Abbott’s work is smart, beautiful, and sophisticated. It’s highly controlled yet poetic and surprising. Over the years, my career has become more focused on writing and research and less on design practice. I still do quite a bit of design, however, for my own books and curatorial projects, and I look to Abbott (when I’m brave enough) to make sure my stuff isn’t too crude and obvious. He is the master of intelligent details.

Abbott: Ellen influenced me from our very first design classes together at Cooper Union: she was always connecting design to language, culture, and humor, never accepting the constraints of design as a primarily visual or stylistic endeavor. I can remember most of the pieces she did in school because they pointed to an entirely different way of thinking. We really forged a way of working together at a very early stage in our lives, and although we now work together less, we still have those bonds. Her discipline and focus is something to behold!

How are your working lives and home lives integrated? Do either of you have a home studio, for instance?

Our home office is Ellen’s primary base, but Abbott is able to work here when he is not in New York. We are thus able to see what’s going on, but we’re not on top of each other. We definitely respect each other’s privacy.

How do you approach design-related decisions that you make as a couple in your daily lives?

Abbott definitely has primary authority over decorating the house. (Ellen controls the food.) We think couples have less stress when there is leadership in some areas. Why argue about paint colors or chicken recipes?

How do you approach your childrens’ connection to design and the visual arts?

We don’t push art and design on our kids, but we want them to see what it’s like to love what you do. Our kids have two working parents who have challenging and rewarding professional lives. If they can find that kind of satisfaction, in any field, then we will be proud and happy.

Next: Gael Towey and Stephen Doyle

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