Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More


Interview, Ellen Lupton with Donald Moffett and Marlene McCarty (Bureau), June 27, 1994. An edited version of this interview appears in the book Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Tibor [Kalman] often said that there was the shit work at M&Co that kept the studio open, and then the projects they really cared about. Is there a divide like that here?

Donald Moffett: I love doing the Clinique work. Although it helps pay the bills, we don’t treat it as a secondary project at all. We don’t want to do uninteresting work. We try to keep boring projects from coming in the door at all, which maybe hurts us economically, but we’re doing okay.

Marlene McCarty: There are the “paradigm projects,” but we need the other things, too. It’s important to find ways to have fun doing all of the jobs we take on. It’s a disaster if you don’t work on a project—everyone comes out of the situation unhappy.

What about the formal vocabulary you use? Where does it come from?

MM: We just do what we can. I have the whole Basle thing. Deep in my heart, I trust that I can make anything turn out okay formally. There’s no fear there about form.

DM: My background is art and biology.

MM: I have an ingrained formal ability—I can make it work. Don’s more emotional—he says to “make it louder.”

Are you treating the mass media as a vernacular? For example, in the Elektra ads, you use of stock photography and harsh gothic typography?

MM: In Gran Fury we talked about the “authority of the media.” Our idea was to use that authority to sell a different agenda. The Elektra ads aren’t the best example, since that’s a commercial message. But for all the theorizing I could do about design, it often comes down to “what we like.” It’s often just intuitive, blind faith. “I like the red letters better…”

How does your art world practice relate to your design practice?

DM: We used to try to integrate them more. It’s not that one contaminates the other.

MM: A lot of it has to do with economy. We both draw a salary from Bureau, which we didn’t do at first. It’s hard to define how you divide art time and Bureau time. The fairest thing is to say that the 8 hours are Bureau time. Which causes it’s own problems, of course—when do you do your art?

DM: From a tactical point of view, integrating the two or just juggling the two is day-in-day-out problem.

MM: Maud Lavin did a piece in Art in America which outed me as a graphic designer. It was a great piece. In the beginning, we spent a lot more time trying to make the two merge. But people need to categorize; they need to keep the two worlds separate. One group doesn’t understand the other.

DM: The 42nd Street project was an interesting cross over situation, because Bureau was invited to participate as artists. Of course, it fell apart. And it was a mess from a disciplinary point of view, with Tibor organizing the whole thing and giving himself the most prominent position. We weren’t being helped by trying to cross over between art and design. The art world in particular was especially dismissive of huge chunks of our creative world.

Are you interested in anything that’s going on in the world of graphic design right now?

DM: To be honest, no.

MM: There’s a lot of nice looking design going on, but when I think about what interests me in the art world, there’s so much more there.

DM: Art and film are the areas that vitally interest us. Film is the only art form I truly love.

DM: Film really is the most potent art form today; that’s obvious.

MM: People hate art because it’s boring, dead, and closed to itself. And then graphic design—people just don’t understand what it is. It’s devalued because it’s ephemeral. So, art is boring and graphic design is underappreciated.