Design for the future Art: At the Maryland Institute, College hTC of Art, three new nationally recognized faculty members are making their marks in the graphic design and illustration programs.

February 01, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Maryland Institute, College of Art has an excellent reputation. Recently U.S. News and World Report named it one of the top four visual arts colleges in the nation.

But that ranking had little to do with graphic design or illustration.

"The reputation of those departments was nothing like the reputation the institute enjoys in fine arts," says Ray Allen, who became vice president for academic affairs in 1994. "I saw no reason why we couldn't make the applied arts areas every bit as strong as the fine arts areas."

So Allen went right to the top.

In 1996, he hired as head of illustration Julian Allen, an English-born illustrator who had lived in New York since 1973 and done work for many leading publications, including Esquire, Time, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the New York Times.

And last fall he named as co-chairs of the graphic design program Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, a wife-and-husband team of graphic designers who run a New York design firm, curate exhibitions, and write and publish books.

All three have continued to pursue their nationally recognized careers while they set out to revitalize what have been low-profile fields within the institute.

"People feel they are secondary citizens going into design or illustration," says Julian Allen, "and of course it's absolute nonsense. As far as I'm concerned, a first-rate illustration is better than a second-rate painting, as is a first-rate piece of poetry or graphic design or anything else.

"They are all areas of the arts, and I think there are even times when I feel offended by the term fine art."

Part of the problem the three newcomers faced was that both departments had been combined under an umbrella called visual communication.

Being considered an adjunct of design only reinforced illustration's image problem, says Julian Allen. And being coupled with illustration kept graphic design from establishing itself as an independent art form, according to Lupton and Miller.

"I think there's a tendency in any art academy to think of design as that place you go after you realize you're not a good painter," says Lupton. "Oh no. That's not the case. This is a real discipline, with real issues. You can be an artist as a designer, have an individual vision and something you want to achieve and make a life out of it, and it's an incredible experience to do that."

So there are now two independent departments at the institute, graphic design and illustration. Visual communication no longer exists.

Lupton and Miller

Lupton and Miller were attracted to the institute by its strong commitment to change and the challenge to make over a department. "The institute has always been a great art school, but design has had an uneasy place there because of the very strong academic painting tradition that the school represents," says Lupton. "We could tell from meeting with Fred Lazarus, the president, and Ray Allen that they wanted the Maryland Institute to be a great design school, and that's very exciting to us."

Another plus was the institute's location.

"Baltimore is two and a half hours from New York and right in the middle of everything," says Lupton. "It's not in the Midwest somewhere where you're just stuck in some campus. And there's this wonderful real estate. You can buy the biggest house on the block and still have money left over to pay the heating bill."

Ray Allen sought them for their combined theoretical and practical backgrounds in the field. "First and foremost it was their formidable intellects," he says. "Between somebody on the intellectual high road, with a knowledge of the relationship between design philosophy and design culture, and somebody who would build an urgent bridge between the school and the marketplace, we chose the former."

Now both 34, Lupton and Miller have shot to the top of their field in the last decade. Lupton has been curator, and remains adjunct curator, of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. Her exhibitions there include "Mixing Messages: Graphic Design and Contemporary Culture" and "Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines From Home to Office."

Miller has won four gold medals from the Society for Publication Designers for his work as art director of Dance Ink magazine. Last year he launched its successor, 2wice, a semiannual publication on visual culture. His exhibitions include "Geoffrey Beene Unbound," on the 30-year career of the fashion designer, and "Printed Letters: The Natural History of Typography."

Miller and Lupton are partners in the firm Design/Writing/Research, which has produced exhibits on everything from the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames to the impact of World War II on architecture and industrial design. Their exhibit celebrating the 30th anniversary of Rolling Stone magazine is currently touring the country. Their books include "Design Writing Research," on the history and theory of design.

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