A couple of weeks ago, Tanner Woodford left his stable, well-paying job as lead interaction designer at the investment research firm Morningstar to focus full-time on growing his passion project, the nascent Chicago Design Museum, which he founded in 2012. “I’m taking the leap,” the 27-year-old says over the phone. “I’m sooo nervous, but I’m also very confident. Sometimes doors don’t open until you make a big gesture.”
Woodford has been operating “ChiDM” as a pop-up museum. Floating between a 6,000-square-foot Humboldt Park loft and a portion of the mostly vacant third floor of the Block 37 mall, it has hosted nine events, including exhibitions on IBM’s century of progress and the craft of hand-painted signs; lectures by noted designers Debbie Millman and Marian Bantjes; and the curation of a Blue Line el car for Art on Track. But fed up with itinerancy, Woodford wants to plant the Chicago Design Museum flag at a to-be-announced location—the first major step, he believes, toward establishing a sizable design-first hub, like London’s Design Museum, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, or LA’s Architecture and Design Museum. “There are a lot of people in Chicago showing design,” he says, “but no institution dedicated to doing it consistently and constantly.”
Woodford launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 31 to fund the museum’s first show in its future home. The June exhibit, running in tandem with the American Institute of Graphic Arts’s centennial celebration, is a retrospective of the last 100 years of Chicago design: Daniel Burnham’s “Make no little plans” to Mies van der Rohe‘s “God is in the details”; Oswald Cooper’s development of the Cooper Black typeface; the Container Corporation of America’s generous patronage of graphic artists; the 1946 “Modern Art in Advertising” show at the Art Institute. The second piece of the show will look into the future; Woodford and the museum’s curatorial director, Matthew Terdich, have tapped Chicago designers to envision the ways in which communication will evolve in the next 100 years.
Posters designed to reward donations toward the museum’s $50,000 fund-raising goal (one such poster graces the cover of this week’s paper) read: “Let’s do something impossible,” a slogan that seems to be Woodford’s winking acknowledgment of the historically fraught relationship between art and design. As an often commercially-driven, client-centric discipline, design hasn’t always been warmly welcomed in those bastions of unbridled self-expression, art museums. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Design has to work, art does not,'” says Woodford, citing the late artist Donald Judd. “For most designers, though, it’s a really fuzzy line, and it’s not really the Chicago Design Museum’s interest in defining whether something is art or design. We want to build a platform for the two communities to engage, then stay out of the way.”