On July 30, Ellen Lupton concluded her 30-year tenure as the senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Lupton, however, is not slowing down: She will continue teaching as the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; she’s working on an expanded third edition of Thinking with Type; and she is looking forward to doing more writing, lectures, and workshops. Now a Cooper Hewitt curator emerita, Lupton spoke to ARCHITECT about her legacy of renowned and provocative exhibitions and publications—investigating everything from typography and public health to the intersection of feminism and design—as well as writing and publishing about design, and the urgent issues facing the design and museum fields.
ARCHITECT: You are a curator and educator who trained as a graphic designer. As a practitioner, what do you bring to the table which is different from a traditional museum curator who perhaps studied art history or museum studies?
Lupton: As a practicing designer, I’m a lived-experience expert. I see things from the maker’s perspective. Furthermore, design skills are deeply empowering. People often ask how I’ve managed to write 34 books and complete so many projects. Design is my secret sauce. I’m able to produce my own books or create my own floor plans, prototypes, and exhibition graphics. In so many situations where another curator or writer has to slow down and wait for help, I’m able to work directly with my content. Design is a huge source of joy and freedom!
Looking back, what exhibitions are you most proud of and why?
My first exhibition at Cooper Hewitt was Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office. The show opened in 1993 when I was 30 years old. The exhibition mixed feminism and sociology with interactive exhibition design. It combined objects, images, and media—and set a personal bar for me as an emerging curator and scholar. In 2018, I organized The Senses: Design Beyond Vision with [Cooper Hewitt associate curator of contemporary design] Andrea Lipps. Andrea and I assembled dozens of products and installations that question design’s visual bias. We collaborated with our Cooper Hewitt colleagues and outside designers to create a fully accessible installation, exploring new ways to share content with visually impaired visitors.
I published books with nearly every exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, including Brides and The Senses, so this content lives on and on—even five, 10, or 30 years later. At Cooper Hewitt, I’ve also published stand-alone books that aren’t tied to exhibitions. Design Is Storytelling (2017) and Health Design Thinking (MIT Press, 2020) are beautiful, fun, informative design guides. I love seeing design concepts reach people outside the museum space.
One of the roles of the curator is to collect. What objects are you most proud that you acquired into the Cooper Hewitt collection?
In 1994, I helped acquire dozens of posters related to AIDS and HIV advocacy. This collection has been referenced again and again in Cooper Hewitt’s social media, online publishing, and exhibitions. In 2020, I began working on Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, co-curated with MASS Design Group. Many of the products in this exhibition were acquired by Cooper Hewitt as part of our Responsive Collecting Initiative, which collects artifacts with immediate relevance to social and environmental issues. Design and Healing is on view at Cooper Hewitt through February 2023.
AIA and ARCHITECT magazine prioritize sustainability and equity as pillars of how we approach architecture and design. As a curator, what issues are important to you in curating design?
Accessibility and inclusive design are pillars for me. I’m committed to designing accessible experiences and studying the history and ongoing philosophical debates in the disability design community. I’m proud of the work that Cooper Hewitt has done in this area. There is always so much more to do, so I see myself as a student and observer who is always learning.
You co-founded a design studio, Design Writing Research, with J. Abbott Miller and you could be described as a “designer as author.” As an educator, do you think that graphic designers should learn to write? What other skills do you think are useful?
Putting writing and design together has been powerful for me. It’s what my own career is all about. Designers are equipped with spectacular tools for storytelling. Writing plays a big role, but storytelling is also visual, audio, and performance-based. Designers’ narrative powers make us great team members. We can also use our voices to author our own content. As graduate design faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I know that not all designers love to write, but developing your own voice is empowering. You can find that voice in humor, advocacy, critique, reading up on history and science, and so much more.
How has curating, and your approach to it, changed over the decades?
My work has become more collaborative. I’ve come to realize that big ideas need bigger teams, not a single author. I love collaborating with other curators at Cooper Hewitt and with the design community. It’s more fun to learn and create together.
What do you think are the most pressing issues facing museums and why?
Museums must compete with other forms of entertainment, from Netflix to the Museum of Ice Cream. To survive, museums have to create content, collections, and experiences that are relevant to more people. We have to produce rich online experiences and resources so that people can learn, relax, and grow with us from anywhere on Earth. These changes require resources and courage.
What advice would you tell your younger curator self?
Invest lots of effort into developing ideas at the beginning of a project. Curating is 99% meetings, email, and spreadsheets—not creative thinking. Producing an exhibition involves endless details and logistics. So, if the content you are developing isn’t fascinating, the job becomes a slog. Slow down at the beginning and develop great concepts.
What has surprised you most about your career and why?
Back in high school, when I first decided to “become an artist” and attend Cooper Union for college, I had no idea what kind of career I might have. It was such a joy to discover that writing and design can work together to create public knowledge and cultural content. Wow! I had no idea that this could happen, and I’m so lucky that it happened to me. Every day I’m grateful for the opportunity to spread the word about design to all kinds of people, from graduate students at MICA to doctors, nurses, and medical students interested in human-centered design.
What other design curators, museums, institutions, or organizations are you following? Who do you think is doing the most important, urgent, or innovative work?
The most interesting work is happening in smaller institutions. The Letterform Archive in San Francisco, Poster House in New York, The Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union, and the People’s Graphic Design Archive are building collections, programs, and conferences that have a strong following in the design community. Designers feel personally connected to these organizations. The more established museums have a harder time connecting with the living field of design.
Outside of your own work, what has been your favorite design exhibition?
For me, the real candy is avant-garde design from the 1920s. A life-changer was Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at the Guggenheim (2016). Other personal favorites are Bauhaus Typography at 100 (2021-22 at the Letterform Archive) and Jan Tschichold and The New Typography (2019 at the Bard Graduate Center). These intimate, scholarly shows touch my heart.
What are your plans? What's something that you have wanted to do and can do now?
My curator job at Cooper Hewitt was part-time—although it never felt that way! So, I’m still doing everything else on my list, including teaching in the graduate program at MICA. I’m finishing the third edition of my book Thinking with Type, which has been my most popular book. The new edition is global, feminist, and inclusive, with dozens of pages of all-new content. Publishing is my biggest passion, and I’m excited to free up time for more writing, workshops, and lecture gigs.