Debbie Millman | Essays

Hillman Curtis, 1961-2012

Hillman Curtis

I met Hillman Curtis for the first time on February 17, 2006, when I interviewed him for my radio show Design Matters. He was tall and beautiful and soft-spoken, and I was a nervous wreck. Nothing had prepared me for coming face to face with him, and as we set up for the taping, I had to adjust my frenetic energy to connect with his serene and gentle manner. He was certainly not what I expected.

I was in Season Three of the show. Having made my way through a lineup of patient friends, I began to invite guests that I only knew by reputation. Hillman Curtis was someone I had long admired and I was grateful he’d agreed to the interview. I spent the previous week immersing myself in all of his work: the Artist Series featuring designers including Milton Glaser, the partners of Pentagram, James Victore and David Carson, his extraordinary short films, his marvelous dexterity online and his insightful, best-selling books. Hillman was a fascinating guest and I came away from the experience inspired and moved.

This was among the first interviews wherein I felt the tangibility of a real rapport on the air, and I credited my own growth to Hillman’s experience as an accomplished storyteller. The masterful way he could bring soul to the surface was best evidenced in his Artist Series, and I studied the little films over and over. I learned something new, and continue to do so, with every viewing.

Hillman Curtis directs Lawrence Weiner
Hillman Curtis on the set with Lawrence Weiner

After our interview for Design Matters, I worked with Hillman Curtis seven times. Two were projects that he was commissioned to make for Adobe and Stefan Sagmeister; one was a little film he was making based on the Woody Allen movie “Hannah and Her Sisters”; and the other four were projects I invited him to participate in. Each one was memorable in its own way, though some were more successful than others.

“Hanna For Designers” was a short film I had one spoken line in; it was said to a character being played by Steven Heller. I wasn’t surprised Hillman was making a movie based on the Woody Allen masterpiece. He and I had had several long conversations about how much we loved the e.e. cummings poem “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,” and his homage to both the poem and the movie was poignant. But Hillman was unsatisfied with the piece, and he never published it. We also tried to create a television pilot based on Design Matters, but I ended up feeling that it didn’t capture the spirit I wanted to convey and we didn’t pursue it.

But Hillman was always eager to experiment, and he readily agreed to film every live interview I was able to secure. I consider our three great collaborative successes to be the short films we made on others: Lawrence Weiner, Massimo Vignelli and Malcolm Gladwell & friends. Some were filmed for very little money, but budget was always secondary to Hillman. Not because money didn’t matter ― of course it did ― but he was loath to turn down an opportunity that would allow him to grow and develop as an artist.

Hillman Curtis and Vignellis
Hillman Curtis with Lella and Massimo Vignelli

Over the six years I knew him, Hillman never stopped growing. Those who knew him longer have stated that Hillman never, ever stopped growing. He was an accomplished and talented musician; he then went on to become a pioneering web designer. He further evolved into a masterful filmmaker and director of commercials, best evidenced in his work with IBM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, David Byrne and The School of Visual Arts. Even when he got sick he kept working. He never was complacent and he never gave up; some of his best work was made while he battled illness.

Five weeks before he died, Hillman and I were trying to work together on a new film about Milton Glaser’s recent exhibit of Lapchi Carpets, but we were unable to do the project. The last time I asked Hillman directly about his health was in March 2009. I sent him an email inquiring how he was doing and he responded:
I recently had surgery...recovering slooowwwly, but all cancer was removed. I am for all better purposes Cancer Free...now it's all about keeping disease free for...oh I don't know... 45 years. It's definitely a marathon, not a sprint... but as far as I am concerned it's in the bag.

Hillman Curtis died on April 18, 2012 at 6:03 pm surrounded by his beautiful, brilliant wife Christina, his beloved children Tess and Jasper, his mother and siblings. Hillman died the way he lived: with integrity, with dignity, with spirit and with love. Hillman Curtis was an original artist of extraordinary talent and he was a generous, kind and loyal friend. In our short friendship, I never stopped learning from him, and I doubt I ever will. Once last time, dear Hillman, this is for you:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
by e.e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Hillman Curtis

Posted in: Obituaries

Comments [3]

There is a striking 'likemindness' w/ all and everyone Hillman came in contact with. His authenticity, his gentle soul fuelled by his passionate self-reinventing mode - left a profound impression - on each and everyone. He is missed but loyal to his own undertaking - we need to keep-on reaching out for our dreams.


You can post your memories of him on his Facebook profile and read the very touching words left.



RiP / Hillman Curtis - my homage.

Carole Guevin

Hillman, I want you to know that you have always, and will always be an inspiration to all of my work. Figmints is birthed from the passionate pursuit to telling the creative story in all facets – through identity, on paper, over the web, and in video... modeled after the way I saw you do it.

You might not have known, but you were a mentor to me, and I'll miss you a lot.


This is a touching and heartfelt tribute.
I, too, have worked with Hillman & he was a consummate professional and a truly gentle soul.
He will be sorely missed by all who knew him & those who love his work.
RIP Hillman xoxo

Jobs | May 23