Matter Unlimited’s Design Director Frank William Miller, Jr. spoke to designer Olivia House about making space for Black women and femme artistic expression as co-curator of the “To Illuminate Abundance” exhibition at Augsburg University, a showcase of Black joy and community.
Frank: Tell me about the lightbulb moment when you ask yourself the pivotal question that started it all: Where are all the Black designers?
Olivia: As an art student in graphic design, I’d always assumed I’d work for an ad agency in design roles until eventually I’d run my own agency. That was the goal. In fact, going into college I already had my portfolio, and figured I’d just be coasting through to my career.
Then I met Professor Chris Houltberg. And he made sure that was not going to happen.
Frank: What did he have in mind?
Olivia: Our program had a research requirement, and so as I was digging into the library’s design history books, I started to notice the overrepresentation of white men from Europe. I pointed it out to Chris, I said, “Where are all the Black designers?” And he said to me, I think you just found your research.
Frank: Which is crazy, because there was a ton of Black influence in that era.
Olivia: That’s the thing. There was. But the artists were unnamed!
Olivia: Multiple design books, pages and pages of graphics, and no mention of the artist. I was like, okay, we know these are Black designers, but they weren’t credited for their work. So that’s how the project began. It was half research, and half my own design work. My professor, who then became my mentor, secured a studio for me.
Frank: Was there anything you learned then that informed your process as a design professional?
Olivia: Yes actually. Chris and I had a daily agenda. I followed a pretty strict routine that helped with the volume of work I was facing. And then there was the music.
Frank: What role did music play?
Olivia: Chris and I collaborated on a playlist with music from like 1945 to 1975 so that I could approximate the feeling of being a Black designer of that era. I’d have the tunes going, plus all the period-specific work I’d pinned up: magazine covers, album covers, ads, Black-owned businesses posters of protest, and I’d just sketch for hours in that environment I’d created.
Frank: How would you say your work on this project differs from how other people have covered this era?
Olivia: What I’ve noticed about how other people have covered it is that they focused just on the work, the actual design pieces. People have compiled huge amounts of designs without even knowing who they’re by. It just says, unknown.
Frank: Unknown. Unknown depends on who you ask.
Olivia: Exactly. We rarely get credit. I could spend forever talking about that. If you’re not white, and you’re not a man, you’re unknown. So to me, it was a lot more important to turn the spotlight, and shine it on the people, the people who did a great deal of the work, and got none of the credit. So I focused on 8 of them, and wrote a narrative for each, not focusing on what they made, necessarily, but who they were and where they came from. I wanted to humanize the work, and reveal how they inspired the next generation of Black designers, and the next one after that, all the way to us, students.
Frank: How do you think this project will live on?
Olivia: It already has. After my final presentation went so well, professors in the department started to incorporate my work into their curricula. So now students don’t have to ask themselves the question I asked years ago. Not only that, but my most recent exhibition, To Illuminate Abundance, is an embodiment of this vision. The show featured nine Black women and femme designers covering the range of early career designers to seasoned pros.
Frank: What was the significance of that show?
Olivia: The show was held in Minneapolis, where I’m from and went to school, so I have that personal connection, but it’s also a city scarred by the public murder of George Floyd. There’s a special significance to the artists being Black women and femmes because we’re the ones society puts so much on: organizing, educating, supporting. The emotional labor is exhausting. So the show was also meant to be a recognition of ourselves with an emphasis on joy. I wanted it to feel light. I wanted it to feel inspiring, hopeful, not only for the viewers, but for the artists, curators, and for the whole of Minneapolis, for our collective future.
Frank: Did you feel that future-facing joy?
Olivia: You know, it’s hard to imagine a future that’s not…this, because we spend so much time in this. But I think, to answer your question, yes, we did it. We created an opportunity for us to imagine what life would be like if we, as Black women and femmes, were able to live a full life, full of light, happiness, joy, love, without pain or suffering. Obviously, what we’ve endured in the past, and in the present, that’s the subtext of the feature, but I needed it to stay a subtext, and not block the light. I wanted it to be a joyous making experience, which became a major theme of the show: the revolutionary act of joyous making.
Frank: How do you see your future art?
Olivia: What I thought was a college project, I learned was my life’s work. There’s so much more to reveal, and know. And I’d like to be a facilitator of this work. I want to be able to take people along with me and to showcase the incredible work that exists in this world that’s never talked about, never credited, never uplifted in the ways other work is. We’re talking about the simple act of making art. We do that, too.
Frank: You’re damn right.
Olivia: We’ve been here, and we belong here.
To Illuminate Abundance contributing artists:
Leeya Rose Jackson