Recognized for design that elevates culture, fusing content and form through elegant and incisive publications, exhibitions and identities.
In 1989, Abbott Miller founded a company with his wife, Ellen Lupton, whose name straightforwardly announced its breadth: Design / Writing / Research. Though it may sound simple to combine those endeavors, creative, communicative and scholarly abilities are like strings, keyboards and percussion: harmonious when executed well, but rarely performed by a single band member.
And yet, symphonic richness and deceptively easy clarity have always been hallmarks of Miller’s design. A partner at Pentagram since 1999, he enhances the legacies of people and institutions that have defined culture, high and low. His environmental designs and graphic identities have complemented buildings by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Thom Mayne and Tadao Ando. His exhibition designs and catalogues have lushly interpreted the art of Matthew Barney, the seduction of motorcycles and the fashion of superheroes. In his hands, the history of the Formica Corporation gets the same thoughtful treatment as the design theory of the Bauhaus.
Miller is not just a magnifier of cultural beacons; he is also a source of light. Dance Ink, a magazine he art directed that froze dancers’ bodies on paper without arresting the thrill of their dynamics, reset the bar for editorial design. Published from 1989 to 1996, it also marked the beginning of his ongoing collaboration with its founder, Patsy Tarr. In 1997, they launched a successor, 2wice, a semiannual paean to monomania. Edited by Miller, each issue of 2wice explored a single theme, including feet, interiors and uniforms. Later, it assumed the dance focus of its predecessor and moved into the digital realm.
Recently, Miller has moved into creating iPad apps that approach the digital tablet as a completely new stage for dance and interaction. In Fifth Wall, for instance, the choreographer and dancer Jonah Bokaer gyrates in a series of overlapping frames that, when rotated (by Miller), prove to be shallow boxes.
Born in northwest Indiana in 1963, Miller enrolled at Cooper Union to study art and was caught up in the intellectual ferment produced by its faculty. He was inspired by George Sadek’s emphasis on verbal wit, Hans Haacke’s insistence on the artist’s political responsibility and Niki Logis’s articulation of the language of sculpture. “Sometimes I miss that crazy intensity,” he recently said. “Where does that happen now?”
Today, a typical day for Miller is a culture vulture’s dream. A recent one began with a meeting at the Guggenheim Museum, for which he has designed the identity, website and publications. On this occasion, he was preparing to show his dance apps at a museum program. Then it was on to the Brooklyn Museum and a photo shoot for a book about avant-garde shoe design. The next day would bring a presentation of his proposals for environmental graphics for Morphosis’s building at the new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Crowning it all were his preparations for the forthcoming release of his own monograph and the opening of an Abbott Miller exhibition at the University of Monterrey in Mexico. Both will showcase the scope of his career, with all of its cultural touch points, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Harley-Davidson. “I don’t see the pursuit of interesting and beautiful design as fundamentally at odds with the broadest possible marketplace,” he has said. “In that sense I am an optimist.”
Abbott Miller will be presented with the AIGA Medal at The AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25, 2014, in New York City.