Mike Mills, Graphic Artist

Beginners: Portrait of a Graphic Designer

In Mike Mills’ Beginners, the lead character Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) is a graphic designer, working on T-shirts (with messages culled from conversations he’s had with his dog), album covers and an illustrated history of sadness. Oliver’s profession, like much of the film’s story, comes from Mills actual life. Raised in Southern California on a steady diet of punk rock and skate boarding, Mills brought this outsider sensibility with him when he attended art school at New York City’s Cooper Union in the 1980s. Interested in making work in the real world, Mills gravitated toward graphic design, creating the look and feel for clients he knew and appreciated. While there is no single thing that characterizes Mills’ design, his work inevitably showcases simplicity of form, a subversion of cultural expectations and a willingness to expand into any and all media. The following slide show gives a quick glimpse into some of his work. To see more, especially his film and video work, visit his site Mike Mills, as well as his special Beginners’ blog.

X-Girl Graphics

In 1994, Mike Mills created the in-store graphics for X-Girl, a clothing line/boutique started by Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. This relationship would continue with Mills creating album covers and other designs for the group.

Sonic Youth Washing Machine Album Cover

For the Sonic Youth album Washing Machine, Mills curated a collection of photographs.  The cover photo was shot by the band while on tour, and used by Mills for the design. He described his intent in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2006: “I did a cover of Sonic Youth cover that had a picture of their merchandising on the front, and everything about it was very regular, straight, and in a way just trying to flip what you expect from them.”

Beastie Boy T-shirt/Poster

The simple circles-and-boxes design of the 1995 poster, album and t-shirt made it stand out among the grunge look that characterized many other designs of the time.

Album Cover for Air’s Sexy Boy

The toy monkey that Mills showcased on the 1998 album Sexy Boy by the French music duo Air is also part of the groundbreaking video that Mike Mils made for the band.

Air, "Sexy Boy" music video

Mills plays off the same imagery and feel used for the album cover.

Subliminal Skateboards

Skateboard culture has been an integral part of Mills work and sensibility. He’s created work for skateboard shops, and his 1998 music video for Air’s song “All I Need” incorporates a documentary profile of a young couple in love that were brought together by their love of skateboarding. Mills remembers “when I was in high school I actually made some skateboards in my woodshop. In my late 20s, I started doing designs for Stereo and Supreme. It’s funny I’m doing the same thing I did when I was 14, 15 years old.”  The Subliminal Project, created by artists Shepard Fairey and Blaze Blouin, seek to use skateboards as “a fine arts medium.” For his pieces, Mills employs his post-punk strategy of associating icons, like Ralph Nader, Patty Hearst, and Allen Ginsburg, not normally associated with the skateboard culture.

Gap West Side Story Commercial

Having already created a number of startling TV commercials for Nike and Adidas, Mills was approached by Gap to create a series of ads. His West Side Story dance pieces were inspired by the choreography of Jerome Robbins with dancers wearing Gap Khakis. He told Harper’s Bazaar in 2000, “"I rarely do anything tricky…I like to be obvious and innovative at the same time." Here is a video that shows the making of the ad.

Human Posters

In 2006, Mike Mills launched the Humans project. “The Humans project imbeds highly personal themes into mass produced items such as posters, scarves, ribbons, fabric patterns, T-Shirts and bags. Humans operates in between the art world and popular culture, in between graphic design and an art practice. Recycled paper, non-bleached cotton, and soy-based inks are used.”

Undefeated Billboard Project

In 2007, Undefeated, curator Aaron Rose and Nike collaborated to created the Undefeated billboard project.  The billboard is above the Undefeated Store on Los Angeles La Brea Avenue (just south of Beverly).  For Zoetrope All-Story, Mills explained about the billboards, “two of which featured camera-trap photos of a mountain lion and a coyote. Not long ago, that section of La Brea was a natural habitat for both these animals. My designs are an attempt to reinsert them, at least in our consciousness, into this place.”

More From Focus Features:

Mike Mills as Artist and Filmmaker
Artists Using Film, from Dali to Mills
A multimedia slideshow of artists who took up film.
Aaron Minier:
Drawn to Action: Graphic Artists Interpret Hanna
Three graphic artists make Hanna their muse.

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