A Look at Language With Designer Debbie Millman at Museum of Design Atlanta

Millman's "Text Me: How We Live in Language" is on display at the Museum of Design Atlanta, Sept. 17-Feb. 4, 2018.

As an internationally renowned designer, writer, educator, brand strategist and host of "Design Matters" podcast for more than 12 years, Debbie Millman's impressive laundry list of accolades just got a little longer.

Millman has curated the original exhibit, "Text Me: How We Live in Language" at Museum of Design Atlanta—MODA—including objects and artwork ranging from murals, embroidery and tableware to an immersive digital installation by more than 60 leading design luminaries such as Stephen Doyle, Elle Luna and Timothy Goodman.

Located within the Midtown Arts Corridor since 2011, MODA is the only museum in the Southeast devoted exclusively to the study and celebration of all things design. The electric combination of MODA and Millman is one not to be missed. Ahead of the exhibit's opening, Where Atlanta editor Colleen Ann McNally spoke with Millman about what visitors can expect. 

How did you get the idea for this exhibit?

Believe it or not, it’s been an idea or a fantasy really, for at least 12 years. I wrote it down in a journal in 2005 as something I really wanted to do and just left it there. I didn’t pursue it in any way. I am an artist whose work is sort of at the intersection between visual imagery and language. All of my own work in what I hope to be an artistic way.

I was here in Atlanta in 2015 for the HOW Design Live Conference because I helped to curate that conference, and I had the opportunity to meet Laura Flusche, the executive director [of MODA]. We went out to dinner one night with Hank Richardson—I was doing an event at Portfolio Center and then a lunch talk here at MODA. Over dinner, I told Laura, ‘You know, I’ve always had this idea for an exhibit.’ And she was like, ‘Oh really?’ 

I told her about the idea, and she thought it was really interesting and asked me to write a proposal. I wrote a proposal, and I think she presented it to the board, and it was approved. Then I had to put together a show.

Stephen Doyle's "Reconstruction of Elean Ferrante's Frantumaglia"
Stephen Doyle's "Reconstruction of Elean Ferrante's Frantumaglia" (©Stephen Doyle)

Talk a little bit about that process. It has come together in the last two years, then?

Not even. It was probably a good six or eight months after the HOW conference that I came to Portfolio Center and it was quite some time after. I would say that maybe we’ve been working on this for about a year.

I first came up with the name. We had a different name at first that came from a Bertand Russell quote about the intersection of language and visuals. We called it 'Illicit Liaison' because that was taken from a quote from Bertand Rusell, but we felt that might be a little be too cerebral and not telegraphic enough so that people would understand what it was about, so we changed the name to ‘Text Me: How We Live in Language’ because we felt that was instantly understandable.

I had already been inviting artists when it was first called 'Illicit Liaison' and I asked people that I know and admire, or people that I’ve worked with before at other venues, or people I’ve interviewed on ‘Design Matters.’ Every single person I invited said yes, except one and it was only because she had recently won the MacArthur Genius award and didn’t have work left to lend. So we got just an incredibly positive response from people, and the more people that said yes, the more courage I had to reach out to other people to ask them to contribute to the show. Before you know it, we had 70 artists and designers participating in the show.

What do you hope people experience and take away from the exhibit?

I believe that our use of language is fundamentally what connects us. It’s also what disconnects us, but I’m thinking more optimistically with this show about how we are all surrounded by messages and language and words. We live in and through words. We use words to express and define our reality. Somehow, by having these concrete messages in one specific place, where we can all view them at the same time, maybe we’ll get to enjoy that feeling of being fundamentally connected. Humans are happiest when our brains are harmoniously resonating with others. That’s when we are really happiest. It’s not about a bigger car, TV, iPhone or whatever. It’s about harmoniously resonating with other people. I’m hoping that through this experience that people who are going through the experience together, that somehow they’ll be able to see the world in the same way at that moment and feel good about what they’re observing.

This is something that I hope will show us how much we rely on language, in a way that we may not even realize, way beyond texting. I hope people get to experience that.

(©Adam J Kurtz)

You mentioned how you’ve worked with language in your podcast. How has that evolved?

I started the podcast almost 13 years ago at this point, before they were podcasts. It was a live radio show that I did on an internet radio network called ‘Voice America.’ I taped it once a week and what I was having to confront were people who didn’t have the opportunity to listen while it was live, asking me how they could hear the show. Because they were all taped, I started to upload them to iTunes before there was a podcast section. It was really early in this discipline and then it’s evolved over the years.

It started out as a very much ‘Inside Baseball’ podcast—designers talking about design—to how a type of creative person designs their life. So I’m not really talking about specific projects or how something looks, but how and why somebody became they way they are and making the things that they do, whether it be art, music, literature, whether they study math or science or jewelry making. It’s every possible creative experience that anybody could have and what that particular person has experienced and the arc of their life and the arc of the way that they’ve created the things that they create. A lot of those people have pieces in the show as well.

Wow, you must have really been on the forefront of podcasts.

I’ve just been doing it a long time and I love doing it, so I hope to do it forever.

What do you think about the design community in Atlanta?

It’s vibrant. There’s so few design museums in the world, so the fact that there is one in Atlanta means that Atlanta thinks it’s important. It’s an incredibly vibrant community between AIGA and the Portfolio Center and the various colleges in the area and the museums. You can’t ask for more than that.

Are there any things that you were surprised to learn along this journey?

How hard it is to put on a show. I never realized how hard.

"Pay for Soup" by Chase Jarvis
(©Chase Jarvis)

So, are you planning on doing another?

Not for a little while...When Laura invited me to send in the proposal, I had no idea what it meant to curate a show. I thought it was like, ‘OK, I’ll invite some people that I really admire to contribute some pieces to the show.’ Oh my God, now I’ve gotten involved with everything from promotion to fundraising to exhibit design to everything. It’s been amazing, but it’s really been an incredible learning curve.

Have you had any free time while you’ve been in Atlanta—places you’ve gone or enjoyed, or are hoping to see before you leave?

I don’t really know yet...right now I’m living at the museum.

I’ll also be back a few times doing more events with the museum. I’m doing a talk with Paula Scher, one of the most famous designers in the world. We are doing a talk here on Oct. 30 and I’m really excited about that. Then, we’re going to put on a spoken word event in January with Timothy Goodman, don’t have a date for that yet, so there’s a lot in the works.