So much of what makes the Walker a great place for design is because of Mickey Friedman and her tenure as design director, design curator, and editor of Design Quarterly. Since Mickey passed away earlier this week, a number of design voices have been offering personal reflections on Mickey’s influence on them, as well as fascinating glimpses into the Walker’s design culture during her time here. I highly recommend you read Andrew Blauvelt‘s personal and compelling article covering a wide range of Mickey’s contributions to the design field, from groundbreaking exhibitions such as De Stijl, 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia, Tokyo: Form and Spirit, and Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, to her generous and forward-thinking editorial approach with Design Quarterly, and her creation of Walker mainstays such as the Insights Design Lecture Series and the design department’s fellowship program. The Walker is also collecting short contributions from a variety of Mickey’s peers—the entirety of which you can read here—and I wanted to pull out a few below.
Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Abbott Miller and I had the amazing pleasure of working with Mickey in the late 1980s on her groundbreaking exhibition Graphic Design in America. She was the first real curator I had ever met, and she had so much to teach a young aspirant like myself. Her grace, intelligence, and kindness—and her patience with two green young writers—will always stay with me. Mickey Friedman thought with her eyes. She had a way to spinning stories, ideas, and insight out of objects and rooms. She had both extraordinary taste and the desire to illuminate the whole world with better design.
Exhibition view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989
Abbott Miller, designer, writer, and partner at Pentagram
Mickey had an amazing sense of adventure, independence, and generosity in her thoughts and actions. That combination led her to champion, explicate, and consider design from truly diverse vantage points. From the “spoon to the city” meant that Julia Child, Tokyo, and Frank Gehry were all expressions of design. There was a modernist current to her interests, but not as a stylistic vocabulary. She was interested in the public life of design, the formal experimentation of contemporary designers, but also the “commercial vernacular” that was evident in her Graphic Design in America exhibition.
I co-authored an extended timeline-essay for her Graphic Design in America catalogue: I remember that Mickey came to New York to discuss the show with Ellen Lupton, who was curating great exhibitions on graphic design at Cooper Union. We saw her outline for the catalogue she was planning, and after she left we wrote her a letter nominating ourselves as the authors. Her response was along the lines of “I was thinking the exact same thing.” It was a leap of faith that she had probably made many times in her career, trusting her instincts and having confidence in her choices.
I’ve been fortunate to have had multiple occasions and experiences touched by Mickey, Martin, and their daughter, Lise Friedman, who was the editor of the first magazine I designed. I know multiple projects can be traced back to Mickey, directly or indirectly, and that I am one of many designers whose lives have been deeply influenced by her intelligence, charm, and vision.
Phil Freshman, former editor, Walker Art Center
Mickey Friedman hired me to be the Walker Art Center’s first-ever staff editor in the spring of 1988, and I moved here from Los Angeles with my wife and five-month-old daughter that June. I soon settled into the routine 70-hour-per-week Walker norm and made common cause with the cast of dedicated maniacs who made up the then 60-person staff. One reason I’d been hired was to edit Mickey’s magnum opus, the book accompanying her long-planned exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. She rightly wanted to keep close tabs on the writing (by a large and far-flung set of contributors) and the editing. But before that engine even got started, there was Adam Weinberg’s Vanishing Presence photography catalogue to edit, plus a Frank Stella book for Liz Armstrong. And because I was the only editor in the joint, I was handed just about every printed piece the Walker cranked out, from the members’ calendar to booklets, brochures, program flyers, and broadsides for the film/video, performing arts, and education departments, annual reports, and assorted whatnot. There was also the little business, in the summer of 1988, of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened that September—requiring its own thick set of “ephemera.” After five or six such breakneck months, I asked Martin and Mickey if I could hire a part-time assistant. They shook their heads and shut their eyes. “Edit faster,” Martin intoned.
Editing faster, and editing for precision and clarity, was something at which Mickey excelled. She hated fluff, flatulence, posturing, and imprecision in writing as much as I did. But the wonder of it, to me, was that she could drain waste out of a piece and rewrite lead and concluding paragraphs at warp speed and with seemingly little exertion. I would hand her my first pass at a tortured essay from the graphic design book at, say, 10 am, and within a couple of hours it would be back on my desk, its major problems fixed and the path forward made clear. I learned much about achieving clarity by looking at her edits, and I learned how to struggle less doing my own editing. Although Mickey and I got crosswise many a time, she never told me how to edit nor failed to support me if I was at an impasse with a writer. Although she thought, like Martin, that there was no limit to the amount of time and energy I (and the rest of the staff) should devote to the Walker—that was the way the two of them lived, after all—I saw that in everything she did the aim was excellence and quality. It was remarkable, indeed admirable, how often and squarely she hit those targets.
I was at the Walker until the Friedmans left, at the end of 1990, and stayed the first four years of Kathy Halbreich’s tenure. As tough a customer as Mickey could be, there were definitely days during that post-Friedman time when I missed her no-nonsense and her sharp eye.
Exhibition shot of Tokyo: Form and Spirit
Glenn Suokko, independent graphic designer, former senior graphic designer (1998–1990), Walker Art Center
Working with Mickey Friedman remains one of the most stimulating and important experiences of my career in design. We worked together on the major exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, and it was while working on his particular—enormous—project, that as a graphic designer fresh out of graduate school, I learned from Mickey about the integration of design, art, culture, history, and experience—and so much more. She was unrelenting in making everything exceptional and had amazing taste. I thought she was the most insightful, brilliant person I had ever met. We often had lunch together in Gallery 8 and while enjoying a salad and the special of the day, carried on our work in planning and creating the exhibition, book, and programming. We always worked on Saturdays, because this was the day when we could really dig in and get a lot done without distraction. Every so often on a Saturday, Mickey or Martin would suggest we take a break and have lunch at their house. Mickey always made the most delicious lunches with simplicity and ease. She was so gracious and these are treasured moments in my memory. After lunch we’d head back to the office and work more, and often wind up having dinner and seeing a performance in the theater that night. With Mickey—as with Martin—work and friendship, experience and wisdom, good food and wonderful projects, all seemed to just continually flow into one another in the nicest way.
Peter Seitz, former design curator (1964–1968), Walker Art Center
I worked in the mid-Sixties for nearly five years at the Walker Art Center as design curator, editor of Design Quarterly, and graphic designer, writing, lecturing, publishing, and producing all visual communications and curating design exhibitions, even designing graphics for the early Guthrie Theater. I practiced an inclusive approach to design, something Mickey not only carried on but excelled in it. Her focus on urban design, her involvement in getting good national and international designers and architects in designing in and for Minneapolis, resulted in this area to become known as a center for good design.
After leaving the Walker I was not dismayed when I learned that Mickey took over the design curator position and right away hired two more designers to assist her. We all miss her; the design community lost a great professional and a friend.
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. Photo: ©Walker Art Center