Cheers To: Tanner Woodford, Chicago Design Museum


It’s strange to grasp the concept that the Chicago Design Museum started as a magazine in Phoenix, Arizona —until you talk to Co-founder and Chairman Tanner Woodford.

Woodford, one of the founding members of Fill/Stroke, started the magazine alongside Mark Dudlik and Adria Robles-Morua with the intent of interviewing their heroes. After putting out around 300 cold calls, they were able to ask 28 people—including Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker Art Center and legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, just to name a few—questions that range from “How do you face designers block?” to “What typeface do you want on your tombstone?”

Alas, like many projects that are driven by the heart, the founding members of Fill/Stroke didn’t know how to fund the magazine, so they began to think about how they could build off the same platform. What they were able to do (besides putting the magazine on the internet for the public to read) was summon other design folks, including the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA), to, as Woodford notes, “get everyone in a room together and think about what design looks like in Phoenix.”


What resulted was the first annual Phoenix Design Week, a conference that brought in 800 people its first year. A few years later, AIGA brought a national conference to Phoenix, and, instead of competing with it, the people behind Phoenix Design Week decided to do a bunch of pop-up design events around the city, one of which being the Phoenix Design Museum.

Flash forward a few years to find Woodford back in his home state of Illinois, working with Morningstar’s graphics team. “It’s where I learned public speaking, and what an in-house graphic designer is really responsible for.”

But Woodford wanted something bigger.

b2ap3_thumbnail_10356228_10104829845702391_4914377412052113916_n.jpg“At some moment, I had this desire to do something that was for the city. So I called six friends to my apartment and we started talking about what Chicago needs. We were thinking about all kinds of things: an art gallery, a magazine, a community center. After about three months of discussion, we decided that a design museum is really what Chicago needed—and what Chicago could support. It’s a very culturally rich city, but when you put an artifact in a museum, it completely re-contextualizes that artifact.”

So, drawing off the success of the pop-up Phoenix Design Museum, Woodford and his partners spent three months planning and another three months executing a pop-up museum in Humbolt Park. Consisting of five exhibitions from very different artists and designers, the show reflected their mission of “breaking down disciplinary silos.” In other words, it was a way of getting graphic designers to talk to architects to talk to artists to talk to the public.

1,000 people showed up to the opening reception, and the show saw another 500 visitors throughout the month. Afterwards, Woodford was once again faced with the question of “What’s next?”

A number of shows came next, including one on a moving train car run in conjunction with the Chicago Loop Alliance, who eventually introduced the Chicago Design Museum team to an available space in Block 37 in Chicago's loop—the present and permanent home (at least for now) of the Chicago Design Museum.

The museum opened with their first major exhibition, “Work at Play,” in 2013. “We had the general public as an audience, not just designers,” said Woodford. “In that moment, we realized that the museum was much bigger than me, and much bigger than something I could do with a day job.”

Now, Woodford is focusing all of his energy on ChiDM, and it’s paying off. Since opening, they’ve hosted exhibits that demonstrate “how cities affect people, and how people affect cities.” First up was Chicago, followed by a traveling exhibit featuring work from Deborah Sussman, who Woodford calls the person responsible for “creating the color palate of the 1980s.” Currently, the museum is showing “The State of Detroit,” a highly collaborative exhibit curated by Elizabeth Cummings and Morgan Walsh (shown below) that highlights multiple pieces of the design puzzle—from interactive design, to object design, all the way up to food landscaping.


When asked about what’s next for ChiDM, Woodford said, “we’re always redefining and always thinking about the future. We have a really great advisory board that thinks about the academic perspective of our exhibitions. We’re always think about the story we’re telling, and how we can use time to tell that story.” 

In October, ChiDM will be the first US city to host “New Horizons,” an exhibit highlighting modern Irish Design as part of the Chicago Architectural Biennial.

In terms of their role in Chicago, Woodford couldn’t be happier. “Chicago has been a hub for a long time—a hub for design thinking, collaboration, and innovation. We don’t feel like we’re competing with anyone in Chicago. Instead, we try to compliment what’s going on in the broader sense of the city.”


“The State of Detroit” runs through August 30, 2015 at the Chicago Design Museum. Join ChiDM as they celebrate Design Week at a closing reception on June 19th at 6pm.

Photos courtesy of Chicago Design Museum