For centuries, museums have served as destinations for those seeking inspiration, shared knowledge, or the creation of memories with loved ones.
With over 35,000 museums in the United States (according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services), today we have the ability to seek and find institutions that are highly specific to personal taste, inherent curiosity, or a specialized area of study. Chicago alone hosts dozens of museums on contemporary art, broadcast communications, even surgical science. Chances are, somewhere in the world there is a museum dedicated to the preservation and study of exactly what you are looking for. Finding and traveling to that place is another story.
Nestled on the third floor of a public shopping center in the heart of a major American metropolis, the Chicago Design Museum (ChiDM) is organized to strengthen design culture and build community. The nascent museum fosters unexpected cultural experiences for its visitors who, more often than not, discover its offerings by chance. A central, fortuitous location attracts the general public as a cornerstone audience, which is comprised of families, tourists, passersby, and the young and old alike. The youthful and collaborative non-profit invokes an audience that might not otherwise seek it, significantly lowering the barrier to entry, then capitalizes by remaining free and open to the public. It is worth noting the museum also acts as a destination for designers and creatives, hosting and planning hundreds of events, workshops, and discussions since its founding in 2012.
In questioning whether a museum needs to be a destination at all, ChiDM posits unexpected cultural experiences as a means to the accessibility of its content, and presciently asks whether people should be attracted to a museum, or a museum should be brought to the people.
Focusing broadly across disciplines, at its core ChiDM believes design has the capacity to fundamentally improve the human condition. Inside, visitors can expect to find exhibitions and experiences around topics like architecture, urban planning, graphic and object design, photography, and furniture. To build on this variation, the museum’s interior and exhibitions are consistently and dramatically redesigned to appropriately reflect the content on display. Walking through the glass doors of the gallery into a reimagined, raw industrial space challenges visitors to envisage and better understand the hidden value of a city’s vacant spaces.
Utilizing the shared language of design to communicate its impact on our lives, ChiDM is interested in both the precious and the ordinary, highlighting the impact of design in daily life. Its work toward building an equitable and inclusive institution requires carefully designing the cadence of its exhibitions and programs, so the form and content of each is vastly different from those preceding and following it. Equity and inclusion are critical to presenting a holistic and empathetic narrative on the value design brings to society. ChiDM makes a conscious effort to present both work and designers reflective of current practices and practitioners, but also to celebrate the untold stories of the people that shape our interactions with artifacts and environments. This is best illustrated by examining two recent back-to-back exhibitions—Unfolded: Made with Paper and New Horizon: Architecture from Ireland.
Unfolded was a juried exhibition that highlighted the work of the Chicago design community, but also included contributions from around the world. It explored the materiality of paper by acknowledging an era of digital technology, when more and more aspects of our lives are playing out on screens. It concluded that paper remains unparalleled in its importance and usefulness in design, and that today’s designers, artists, and architects rely heavily on paper-based materials in the development, communication, and presentation of their ideas. Inspired by Made with Paper, a 1967 exhibition by Chicago-based Container Corporation of America (CCA), Unfolded explored the unique properties of paper as a medium, as well as the diverse applications of paper as a means and an end in the work of contemporary designers and artists. Unfolded ran from April to August 2016.
New Horizon was a traveling exhibition in partnership with Irish Design 2015 and the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. It represented an international extension of an initiative backed by the Irish government that explored, promoted and celebrated Irish design. It featured installations by three Dublin-based architecture firms—A2 Architects, GKMP Architects, and Ryan Kennihan. The design concept paid tribute to Chicago’s famous grid system established by Daniel Burnham in the Plan of Chicago and the world famous architecture of Mies van der Rohe, with a physical expression that featured a mirrored ceiling that visually extended a supporting grid of i-beams out to infinity. A large communal table—inspired by traditional decorative arts of Ireland—showcased the work of each firm via stories, models, drawings and photographs. New Horizon ran from October 2015 to January 2016.
ChiDM is committed to providing opportunities for everyone to learn about design via active participation and reflection. Beyond its cross-disciplinary exhibitions in a public space, it intends to create unexpected cultural experiences in other contexts, as well.
Its workshops combine making with discussions of design history or theory led by subject experts. The ChiDM Presents series brings local organizations to the museum to lead discussions around themes of current exhibitions.
All programming directly relates back to a primary goal of open, cross-disciplinary conversations that strengthen and build community, and opportunities to learn through experience. It strives to make design accessible through affordable ticketing costs—an average of $21 per event in 2017. ChiDM Presents events are always free and open to the public.
In seeking to bridge the gap between the worlds of design, art, and accessibility, the museum has revitalized a historic mid-century CCA campaign, Great Ideas of Western Man. Inspired by Mortimer J. Adler’s Great Books of the Western World and with a desire to engage the general public in cultural discourse, Walter Paepcke, founder of CCA, initiated an unprecedented advertising campaign that asked designers and artists to illustrate quotes by thought leaders, which were then run in major magazines and newspapers. The series has been hailed by advertising legend David Ogilvy as “one of the best corporate advertising campaigns to ever appear in print.” With reverence, enthusiasm, and permission from John Massey (CCA Design Director), ChiDM renewed the historic series as the Great Ideas of Humanity. An acknowledgment of the increasing globalization or our world and resulting cross-pollination of ideas, philosophies, societies, and culture, ChiDM aspires to connect contemporary designers and artists with important historical thought, commissioning posters, sculptures, and videos that have been displayed across Chicago and Hong Kong.
Planning two exhibitions annually, volunteers, interns, and a small staff take on real projects with modest budgets and high stakes. Distilled, the Chicago Design Museum is built on the foundation of its volunteers’ vision and energy, then bequeathed to the public at no cost.
This article first appeared in Neshan 41—the Iranian graphic design magazine—in an issue dedicated to design museums and archives.
- Chicago Design Museum
- Great Ideas of Humanity
- Chicago Design Market, Block 37
- What’s Worth Preserving?
- O’ Little Town of Bethlehem, Palestine
- Designing Unexpected Cultural Experiences
- Clutch Gallery Residency
- Dan Friedman, Soho House Chicago
- Stage Design, Chicago Ideas Week
- The Shape of Things to Come, Threadless
- Unfolded: Director’s Letter + Paul J. Smith Interview
- Vol 2.0–2.9, Iterative Work
- Vol 1.0–1.1, Iterative Work
- You Are Beautiful New Years Hotline
- Starts/Speculations: Director’s Letter
- This is Chicago
- Blackbox Gallery, Some Office
- The Design Pack, Cards Against Humanity
- Richard Hunt, Chicago Cultural Center
- Slide Lecture Flyer, Ed Fella
- Around the Clock Identity Design
- Interaction: Clock for Identity Designers, ASU