Graphic design guru Ellen Lupton brings astute eye to personal possessions

For The Baltimore Sun
Design guru Ellen Lupton reveals 10 of her most-prized possessions.

Take 10 is a series of occasional features on prominent local residents and the possessions dear to them.

For Ellen Lupton, 52, graphic design isn't just the field she specializes in as director of the graphic design Master of Fine Arts program at Maryland Institute College of Art and as senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

Graphic design also delineates her life.

Lupton grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of parents who both taught at Morgan State University.

"I come from a family of English teachers and people all into books and talking. Language was always really important. But I was the visual artist," the Roland Park resident says.

Lupton headed to art school, Cooper Union in New York City, with another career direction in mind. At first.

"I had this vague idea about painting. I like painting. But, it always worried me: What do you do as a career with that? In school, I got exposed to the idea of design as problem-solving — using typography and communicating a message. Systems, theories and a tradition behind it was very exciting for me," she says.

That's when the shapes of her past and future intersected.

"When I discovered design, I discovered that they could go together. What came to interest me was that mixture of language and communication with the visual. I really wanted to write about it. So I became a curator," she says.

She's gone on to write or co-write 14 books on graphic design, including the seminal "Thinking with Type."

Marrying fellow graphic designer Abbott Miller — now a partner in Pentagram, a design studio that has offices in New York and Baltimore — brought her life full circle.

"Yeah, [design] is not just a job for us. We drank the Kool-Aid," she says.

The home Lupton and Miller have shared with their children, Jay, 22, and Ruby, 18 — both now in college — has a midcentury modern feel, filled with pieces that boast their own great design as well as contributing to the overall look of the space. If there was any difficulty in choosing her 10 favorite things, it was that there are so many to choose from.

"I love that design is part of life," Lupton says.

"I love living in a beautiful environment. In my kitchen, I love using things that function and make the food beautiful. I'm not a snob. I have Ikea dishes. I think they're beautiful, designed by Ilse Crawford, and they cost, like, $1.99. They're fantastic."

Not that there isn't room for improvement, particularly when it comes to some objects in one particular room.

"A lot of things in the bathroom are irredeemable at this point in time. … I think that everything in your bathroom with labels should be removable. I hate all the brands. They're ugly, and they don't add anything to my experience. I would love to have everything just be … white. You can tell from the shape what it is, after you've bought it. You know what the toothpaste is," she says.

Middle Kingdom porcelain bowls

"They are so beautiful. I use these bowls every day. … They can go in the dishwasher. They have a beautiful rim that is a little bit worn and exposed and that makes me feel like they already have a life. … The shape, the color, the scale; they're my favorite kitchen items."

Scarf by Dutch graphic designer Mieke Gerritzen

"She has created a whole line of scarves that have amazing graphics on them. I have many of them. My favorite has Michael Jackson, Nixon, Madonna and 10 or 15 famous people. The faces are very small, so they become a pattern."

Canvas bag she painted with portraits of her dogs

Her Chihuahua mixes Jack and Kevin appear in Renaissance costumes. "I'm out five times a day walking my dogs. So, it's just big enough to carry the [spare] poop bags and my phone. These are [from] very famous portraits from the Renaissance that are in profile. And I feel that dogs — my dogs especially — show very well in profile."

"Bauhaus," pub. 1969, MIT Press

"It was the first comprehensive book about the Bauhaus, designed by a wonderful graphic designer named Muriel Cooper … really a pioneering figure in design history. … It's a classic book, and this is a first edition that my graduate students gave to me as a gift, and that makes it even more special."

Vintage 1960s pink Ericofon

It was made by the Swedish company Ericsson. "It was sort of a pop object. They weren't widely used because AT&T wouldn't let you use third-party equipment [then]. … It's a very inventive piece and is very functional. But, it's also very weird and sexy and odd; very sculptural and extreme, at a time when all phones kind of looked the same."

"Best Word Book Ever" by Richard Scarry

"Richard Scarry wrote [this] in 1963, which is the year of my birth. I even have a picture of my sister and I — in my father's arms — reading this book. I remember it so vividly. Of course, I bought it for my kids. …It's a very archetypal representation of all the things you have in your life. I've done lectures on it: 'Welcome to Busytown.' I've done some of my own illustrations, adding graphic designers to Busytown and creating the tools of graphic design in the Busytown style."

John Waters portrait on a canvas bag

Waters signed the portrait, which Lupton's daughter painted on the bag. "It's a little celebrity bag that I like to carry to Eddie's for my groceries. It's a Baltimore thing. It's an art thing. And my daughter made it."

Louis C.K. portrait

An oil painting by Lupton's daughter. "I've seen Louis C.K. perform, and I love to go to comedy clubs. I keep this in my [home] office, next to my desk. I think it helps to keep me sour and objective and observant in my work."

Sharpies

"As a designer, you have to have your favorite pen. I have several favorites, but the Sharpie I always come back to because it's loud. I think it's important to amplify. As a small woman, I don't have a very big voice. … In the fall, Sharpie releases these special color collections. One year, they did '80s glam colors. I love it so much, I never took them out of the package."

Jewelry by MICA alum Betty Cooke

"The pieces I like best are her chokers because they're very easy to wear. I think they're just brilliant pieces … inspired by nature, but they're very geometric. They're very thoughtful. They all have an idea that you can really grasp. I love that."

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