Design can enrich your life


"R. Craig Miller, the man hired by Indianapolis Museum of Art President Maxwell Anderson to lead the IMA’s new, multifaceted design initiative, loves his work. Told that we’re going to be having an interview, his mind immediately turns to consideration of where to have his picture taken for maximum effect. Sitting amidst an installation by Ellsworth Kelly on a chair by Ron Arad seems apt.

Miller arrived in Indianapolis from his previous post at the Denver Museum of Art on Oct. 1. He’s quick to say he’s still getting his bearings in his new town — and in the IMA, for that matter. Just finding the elevator can be an adventure. Whether he’s elucidating the fine points of a Barcelona chair or describing his travails with local geography, Miller likes to laugh. It’s one of the ways he shares his enthusiasm.

NUVO: What do you hope to accomplish at the IMA?

MILLER: It’s going to be a multitask assignment. One is to begin to let people nationally and internationally understand that the IMA has made a big commitment to design. We’re going to do that through our exhibitions and publications; we’re going to do it through the collection we’re going to be building for this museum; and then Max is looking at the whole campus and beginning to think about how design can play a role in the complex here — the park, the gardens, the buildings, the galleries. The whole look of the museum.

We’re also looking at starting a design store downstairs. We’d like for that to become a wonderful space where people can go to actually acquire the objects they see in the galleries, take them home and live with them. That’s the great thing about design — it’s what they call “washable art.”

NUVO: Incorporating design to this extent in an encyclopedic museum is a relatively new idea, is it not?

MILLER: It’s a trend that is now growing as we adapt into the 21st century. Museums have suddenly realized they don’t have a 20th century design collection. A lot of their collections stop around World War I and so there’s some waking up and realizing that not only is this material scarce, it’s getting to be very expensive. And if they’re going to build a collection they need to start moving and doing it.

NUVO: More people seem more interested in design today than ever.

MILLER: As an editor at New York Magazine pointed out to me, people who really care about clothes, how they look, are now looking at their house in the same way. They want to sit in a beautiful chair, they want a beautiful cup to drink their coffee from, a beautiful glass in the evening to have a drink of wine. People are realizing how much design can enrich your life.

NUVO: What do you see design doing for the IMA?

MILLER: It’s going to change the institution in many ways. The design collection is going to give the museum a way to tell the story of 20th century art. One of the reasons that Max is so interested in a design collection is because our 20th century collection as a whole is relatively weak, and it’s very late in the game to be acquiring paintings and sculpture. Even if you had all the money in the world there just aren’t that many objects out there that are available.

The other thing is that we see design making the building much more attractive and accessible to the public. Design programs will bring in a new public: design professionals, students, people who simply care about design. It’s a new audience for the museum.

NUVO: You had a great impact in Denver prior to coming here. How would you say design affected the institution there?

MILLER: It certainly changed the museum to form one of the largest modern design collections in the country that really was international in scope and much more encompassing in its collection policy than a museum like the Museum of Modern Art. Denver was suddenly one of four or five museums in the world collecting contemporary design.

It also began to change things in the city. People began to think that when public buildings were being built in Denver they needed to hold a competition and bring in some international talent. So it enriched the city dramatically in the architectural sense. People now expect public buildings to be of a certain level, whether it’s by a local architect or a national one, or international. It’s similar to Columbus, Ind. They expect buildings to have this kind of quality to them, and they’re extremely proud of that. So the city has changed, its cultural life has been enriched.

NUVO: Tell me about the talk you gave not long ago to the IMA staff.

MILLER: It was about a project I’ve been working on that goes back to something I did at the Denver Art Museum when I first started the department there. How can we create a distinct identity for a new collection? One of the things we decided to do was to really focus on contemporary design. We did a series of exhibitions — it was actually the first set by an American museum in about 40 years. The last ones were the design shows at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s. In 1994, we did a big show on Italian design, which went from 1960 up to 1994. And every object wound up in the museum’s collection. So overnight, the museum had a great Italian collection. In 2002 we did a big exhibition on contemporary American architecture, decorative and industrial design and graphic design covering the last quarter century. That was the first survey done of contemporary American design trying to show how architecture and all the design arts relate together. Again, a huge number of the objects out of that were acquired for the museum’s collection.

The third project I started was contemporary European design. That is a project I’ve been working on for five years and that is a project I’m now bringing to Indianapolis. That will happen here in 2009.

NUVO: What excites you now in contemporary design?

MILLER: Seeing what is happening now in Europe. I’ve been traveling back and forth working on this project, and what I think is fascinating is the diversity of approaches that are happening. There’s not just one style.

The other thing I think is very interesting is that we’re in a great transitional moment moving out of the 20th century into the 21st century. We’re seeing the passing of a generation of giants, people who are at the very end of their careers. These are senior statesmen, and what is going to happen when they’re gone and a younger generation has to step up and assume the leadership role?

Another thing I think is going to be extraordinary is the development of Asia, with China and India. It’s totally changing the design system in the United States and Europe because we can no longer economically compete against products made in China. They’re having to develop a whole new strategy where it’s the thinking and creating that’s happening here and in Europe and the products are being made in countries around the world where they can be made more cheaply. Then they’re brought back and sold through dealers and galleries. It’s a very interesting transformation. It’s like a whole new economic and political order is being created.