Design for Explication not Veneration: Remembering Mickey Friedman
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The Gradient

Design for Explication not Veneration: Remembering Mickey Friedman

Mickey Friedman in the Walker design studio, photo contact sheet, 1979

It is with great sadness that we share news that Mildred “Mickey” Friedman (1929–2014)–former Walker Art Center design curator, editor of Design Quarterly (1969–1990), and wife of former Walker director Martin Friedman–passed away September 3, 2014, at age 85. We will miss her greatly, although her spirit and infectious curiosity about design remains firmly planted in the DNA of the Walker.

To commemorate her passing, we are publishing an essay by Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s senior curator of design, research, and publishing and former design director (1998–2008), who looks at Mickey Friedman’s career and enduring legacy, both at the Walker and far beyond its walls.

I first met Mildred Friedman, or “Mickey” as she preferred, in 1989 on an interview to be a designer at the Walker Art Center. She graciously flipped through the oversized pages of my portfolio—these were the days of suitcase-sized, black leatherette cases that could send you sailing down a sidewalk if a strong gust of wind came along—carefully surveying the work and asking questions along the way. A recent graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit, the “hothouse of design in America’s rustbelt” as one critic described it, I’m not sure what Mickey thought of my crazy typographic experiments and deconstructed graphics—the days of David Carson and so-called grunge graphics were years away from hitting the mainstream. Probably not much, as no job was offered. This didn’t seem to matter to me at the time, however. Having not visited the Walker before, my mind was too busy processing an exhibition that I had seen during my visit—a survey of the work of Marcel Broodthaers. The impressions of the galleries were powerful: the cryptic graphics of the artist’s vacuum-formed plastic plaques, a film being projected onto a movie screen printed with text, some potted palms, a “museum within a museum” with single words stenciled on wooden walls. This dynamic amalgam of film, art, vegetation, and typography was all contained in a wondrous white cube of a museum.

Installation view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989

The other impression I left with that day was the activity of the design studio itself, where the interview had taken place. Mickey and the other designers were in the throes of assembling what would later become Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, the first large-scale museum survey of the field. However, on that day it was the space that really caught my eye: the pristine white interiors, the simple, modernist furniture, even the sound (a cool white noise) and the telephones, a beautiful Scandinavian, or perhaps Italian, design (no Ma Bell clunkers here, I thought). There was something perfect about the space—its look and feel—as if it dropped out of 2001, the film not the year. It wasn’t eclecticism typical of the mid-century modernists like Alexander Girard or Charles and Ray Eames, who preferred to interject a bit of the handcrafted and the exotic here and there: objects, textures, little spots of color to warm up the place. This was, no doubt to its detractors, a bit sterile, similar to an operating room, but that also meant it was a place for some serious work. The Walker was a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, both in front and back of house. No personal tchotchkes, Office Max storage bins, or thrift store “finds” were allowed in the open plan offices that eschewed the typical cubicle farm. According to staff legend, such contraband would be removed or tagged with a note to do so each night. Clearly, this was the modern office interior before the crash-pad fad began turning offices into dorm rooms in the 1990s.

I was surprised to learn years later that Mickey Friedman had created the Walker’s interiors with Ed Barnes, the architect of its stellar brick tower of a museum. Mickey had studied design and art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and later met and married Martin Friedman, who became the Walker’s third public director in 1961 and spearheaded its rise to national and international acclaim. Mickey had been working with Minneapolis architect Robert Cerny, himself a disciple of modernism, designing interiors for the firm. The Walker project with Barnes was a natural fit. A testament to the coherence of the Barnes-Friedman interior office vision is the fact that its basic vocabulary survived the 2005 expansion by Herzog & de Meuron, down to the two-and-half-inch-thick, white laminate, parson-style desks and gallery benches, as well as the layers of ubiquitous “Walker white” paint that covers nearly all the surfaces. Once the interiors were complete, she turned her attention to all other things design at the Walker, and the rest is, as they say, history. And what a history.

Design Quarterly: From Publication to Platform

In 1969, Mickey began her formal employment at the Walker, as editor of the museum’s publication Design Quarterly. Founded as the first journal of design issued by a museum in 1946, the magazine would attain an international stature and readership under her editorial vision until it was handed over to MIT Press to operate in the 1990s, an unfortunate victim of “recalibrated” institutional priorities and too many editorial makeovers. However, in the more than 20 years that Mickey oversaw it, she managed to create one of the most editorially eclectic publications about design. What made DQ, the magazine not the soft-serve treat, special was, in fact, its frequent editorial outsourcing: Jay Doblin, father of design innovation, thinking, and strategy, on human factors; Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, innovator of supergraphics, on disposable goods; John Margolies on conceptual architecture; Richard Saul Wurman of TED fame on cities; Denise Scott Brown on urban renewal in America; Bill Stumpf, co-designer of the Aeron chair, on the ergonomics of chef Julia Child’s kitchen; architect Rem Koolhaas on urbanism and Minneapolis; Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart, influential teachers at the Kunstgewerbeschule Basel, on Swiss typography, and their protégé, April Greiman, on her out-of-body experience in cyberspace; Muriel Cooper of MIT Media Lab fame on information visualization; and so many others.

This generous strategy of guest editors–many of them women, by the way–allowed the publication to create a wide and diverse network of participants and readers, and its single-issue topics assured that Design Quarterly could adequately explore an issue in-depth. In today’s parlance, we would say that Mickey reimagined DQ from a publication into a platform, one that supported other emerging designers, critics, curators, historians, and theorists by becoming both the subject and object of progressive design. Although it’s been more than 20 years since DQ ceased publication, the void that it left has never been filled. This is because the publication was almost always focused on research by designers about topics that personally inspired them and very rarely reportage on design itself—investigation and speculation rather than coverage about the field. With its singular focus, generous reproductions, and smart design, it was decidedly not one of those dry and often poorly designed, peer-reviewed, academic journals—the kind that have the awful ability to drain the life out of content, turning the thrill of publication into an agony of citation.

Exhibiting the Emerging

Although she gained the title of design curator in 1979, Mickey was from the outset organizing exhibitions, often in collaboration with Martin. She had an uncanny knack for identifying emerging issues and talent. Almost every show she was involved with was unprecedented in some way. In 1974, she organized the exhibition New Learning Spaces and Places, a project by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer architects, that explored recent technologies, including video and computers, and new types of classroom spaces in partnership with the Minneapolis public school system, undoubtedly drawing upon her prior training and experience in teaching. The exhibition design itself created a unique experience as visitors navigated, for example, an installation of signs and symbols lifted from the urban environment or could interact with displays housed inside a huge metal tube—the unmistakable takeaway from the show was the impact the design of a space could have on learning. In 1975, she organized an exhibition on Herman Miller–looking at its design process rather than simply its beautiful furniture—featuring the work of legendary designers George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Robert Propst.

Inu Hariko, a child’s toy for Shigeo Fukuda’s Playing Space in Tokyo: Form and Spirit, 1986

In the 1980s, Mickey hit her stride with a series of groundbreaking shows that helped the Walker attain a status within the design and architecture world, which would rival the Museum of Modern Art. Her landmark 1981 exhibition De Stijl, 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia would coalesce the ingredients of a winning formula of critical and popular acclaim that would be revisited in later shows. As the first exhibition of the movement in nearly 30 years, it brought together an impressive array of artworks spanning numerous genres: not only painting and sculpture, but also furniture, graphics, and architecture, of course. Choosing a movement whose main objective was the synthesis of the arts—the unification of art and design—was, I believe, a strategic one by Mickey to underscore the role that design and architecture played in the early avant-garde as modernism itself was being formed and debated. Included in the show was a re-creation of the Theo van Doesburg’s Cafe Aubette cinema and dance hall as well as other spaces that had been lost to the vagaries of war or time or were simply never built. This particular strategy of restaging, wherein visitors can not only look at works of art on view but also experience them directly and even viscerally, certainly drew upon Mickey’s skills and experience in interior design but also signaled a powerful new curatorial technique, one that she would turn to again in future shows, such as the 1986 blockbuster Tokyo: Form and Spirit.

A hybrid of an exhibition, Tokyo: Form and Spirit compared the bustling metropolis from the Edo period to the dizzying economic heights in the 1980s. Created as a series of vignettes or installation spaces within the galleries, Japan’s leading architects and designers participated: Arata Isozaki, Fumihiko Maki, Tadao Ando, Shiro Kuramata, Eiko Ishioka, Hiroshi Hara, Toyo Ito, Tadanori Yokoo, and Shigeo Fukuda, among others. The show, which was co-curated with husband Martin, juxtaposed the ancient and contemplative with the contemporary and experiential: a tea house designed by Ando or a performance space by Isozaki and Ishioka featuring a glass floor stage with numerous angled video monitors positioned below it playing outtakes of cryptic yet poetic Japanese television commercials. This “set and setting” approach would also provide exhibitionary coherence and impact to a prescient 1986 survey of the architecture and design of Frank Gehry–nearly a decade before he would become known to the broader public for his museum in Bilbao—in which the architect designed a series of memorable spaces to house examples and models of his work: a room-size wooden fish clad in lead scales to hold his signature fish and snake lamps or a delaminated corrugated paper cavern to contain his innovative Easy Edges and Experimental Edges lines of cardboard furniture.

Frank Gehry and Mickey Friedman at the Walker Art Center, 1986

Design for Explication not Veneration

Toward the end of her term working with the Walker, Mickey proposed a series of exhibitions of up-and-coming architects who would create site-specific projects within the Walker’s uppermost and most intimate gallery. These would be prospective ventures, not retrospectives, and would follow her realization that architecture in museum settings had to have some experience for visitors at full-scale. “It’s almost a disservice to architecture to try to show it in two dimensions. Most people simply can’t read architectural drawings. Models help. But things that people can actually walk through and experience convey a sense of space and materials like nothing else,” she once noted. Appropriately titled Architecture Tomorrow, the three-year series continued past Martin’s and Mickey’s retirement from the Walker in 1990 and featured many of the field’s most talented figures, such as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Steven Holl, and Morphosis. Executed before the profession’s current resurgent interest in materials and fabrication technologies, these shows were compelling examples of the power of architecture to command the space and engage the senses, which exposed the concerns of practicing architects publicly. In many ways, these were the physical instantiation of the kinds of explorations she began with Design Quarterly. By 1990, Architectural Record would declare the Walker “America’s leading museum of design.” Quite an achievement for a museum that has no design collection. But for Mickey or other Walker design curators over the years, it wasn’t so much about amassing objects as it was about the stories that could be told by such artifacts and how they deserved a place under the gallery’s spotlights, not for veneration but explication. In Mickey’s hands, a design show was never simply about a subject, but drew upon the principles and power of design itself to create a compelling experience.

Mickey Friedman with Walker designers at the opening of Graphic Design in America, 1989. Left to right: Jeff Cohen, graphic designer; Glenn Suokko, senior graphic designer; Robert Jensen, design director; Mickey Friedman; James Johnson, chief graphic designer; Lorraine Ferguson, chief graphic designer; Peter Seitz, design curator; and John Calvelli, graphic designer.

One of her last major exhibitions at the Walker was the 1989 landmark show Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. Bringing together a century or more of examples of posters, logos, newspapers, books, magazines, information graphics, packaging, signs, and advertising, it presented a sweeping overview of a practice shrouded in mystery for most of the public. Mounted just four years after the Macintosh computer was introduced, the show was a first for the field. In describing the exhibition, Mickey explained: “We want to present graphic design in terms of its social functions as well as its purely aesthetic qualities. This is a challenging job, because a large segment of the public is unaware of ‘graphic design’ as a major discipline, and many designers are unprepared to look at their work in broad terms.” It was not without its detractors, however, especially those designers inevitably left out of the show’s numerous but ingenious sections. Despite claims at being merely “a” history of graphic design and not “the” history of the field, Mickey would ultimately trump all such criticisms with the apparently less than obvious pronouncement to her dissenters that, as a curator, her choices are ultimately subjective ones. Nevertheless, the exhibition, its catalogue, public programs, and a related issue of Design Quarterly would cement the reputation of the Walker as a serious place for graphic design.

A Legacy Lives On

The Walker’s connection to design remains multifaceted as a producer, commissioner, and presenter of the subject—perhaps the most complex of any museum in the world. The most enduring achievement of Mickey’s long tenure at the museum may be the continued presence of its in-house design studio, which she seamlessly married with editorial, curatorial, and publishing functions, knowing firsthand how these activities converge to create a more powerful impression of an organization. The studio’s unprecedented handling of exhibition and environmental graphics, promotional campaigns, identity programs, and publications all flourished under her leadership, a legacy which she inherited from Peter Seitz and which continued to grow under subsequent design directors Laurie Haycock Makela, Matt Eller, myself, and now Emmet Byrne. Under Mickey’s supervision, the graphic identity and image of the Walker—what we now call the brand—achieved national acclaim and accolades, including the 1987 Design Leadership Award from the AIGA, the professional association of designers in the United States, an honor that placed it in the company of other “perceptive and forward thinking” clients of design such as IBM, MIT, and Herman Miller. The Walker’s identity during her tenure encompassed one of the more sophisticated takes on Swiss modernism in the United States, moving into progressively edgier realms as the studio’s latest designers added their own interpretations to the mix. Her partnership with the Minnesota chapter of the AIGA in 1986 created the annual Insights design lecture series, one of the longest running programs at the Walker, which has continued to grow and prosper. Mickey’s legacy is destined to live on as well in the establishment of the Mildred S. Friedman Design Fellowship, a program she started in 1980 to bring in recent design graduates to work in the design studio and gain invaluable professional experience.

Poster celebrating 25 years of the Insights Design Lecture Series (2011)

Although her exhibitions and publications have dealt with notions of the past and history, they inevitably look and feel of the moment or even of the future—just as her office space looked to me 25 years ago. Perhaps it is simply the inescapable consequence of being part of a center for contemporary art, but I think it also had something to do with the power of design, her own powerful vision of design.

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