debbie millman

Friday, April 13, 2007

Brian Was

what i saw

Brian was short and tall, light and dark; he was smart and silly and arrogant, and sometimes he was a pain in the ass. Brian was a newly minted producer and editor in the film business after graduating from a swanky university, and he had a circle of swanky, about to become famous celebrity friends who were all thin and beautiful and sharp. But the thing about Brian was this: he had potential. Brian had the kind of charisma that you felt before you saw, and once you took it all in, you were convinced that he was destined for greatness and maybe, just maybe, if you were lucky, you could magically ride his stylish coat tails, and slide in to home base on his first up at bat.

Brian was the boyfriend of my roommate Christopher. I decided I hated Brian the moment I met him. Mostly, looking back on it now, I came to this decision largely because I was jealous that he would take Christopher away from me. This wasn’t jealous in a cute “Will and Grace” kind of way, this was jealous in a “way before Will and Grace not very gracious kind of way,” primarily because I felt threatened, and I was petty and insecure and didn’t feel that I could compare to the fabulousness of everything that was Brian.

The boys actually met and fell in love before Christopher moved in with me; but shortly after committing to each other, Brian went off to shoot a series of films in Berlin. For months on end, I listened to Christopher agonize in longing over his long distance love, but as a single girl living in Manhattan in the early ‘80s, I was happy to have the genuine companionship of a vibrant, gorgeous, gay young astrologer nee playwright who seemed to adore our cohabitation despite fervently missing the love of his then young life.

The orbit around Brian descended on our fourth floor tenement walk-up when he came back from his film shoot in Berlin. Christopher was madly in love, Brian made a mad dash to establish himself as head of our little household, and I was just plain mad that I had to compete with him for the love and affection of my roommate. Since we lived in a railroad flat, I had to walk through their bedroom in order to get to mine, and while this was oddly comforting and convenient before Brian moved in, afterwards it was mostly annoying to all of us, for obvious reasons.

This arrangement lasted for a mere month or so when we all realized that our living arrangement wasn’t going to work, and Christopher and Brian quickly found a fabulous new apartment and moved out. I was despondent and slightly bitter, but I tried to put on a brave face for my dear friend who had finally found some happiness and true love.

The new apartment was a duplex with lots of light and they went about gleefully decorating it. Brian had one piece of art he took with him everywhere. It was a big, graphic print by Barbara Kruger featuring a silkscreened image of a beleaguered Christ on the Crucifix with bold typographic statements emblazoned across his body that read “We Don’t Need Another Hero…Manias Become…To Touch The Skin Of Other Men.” This print mesmerized me for two reasons: one, because it was incredibly powerful and beautiful, and two, because it was a “real” piece of art. Other than my mothers life-like portrait paintings hung all over my childhood home, and paintings hung in museums, I had never seen a genuine piece of art, complete with a signature and a number, hanging in someone’s living room. Further, I was awestruck by the statement, “We Don’t Need Another Hero…Manias Become…To Touch The Skin Of Other Men” and I spent hours transfixed on the print, rearranging the phrases, imagining the order that Barbara Kruger preferred and intended.

By this time Brian and I had reached a truce of sorts. Without ever discussing it, I think we mutually recognized that we were pig-headed and territorial, but because we both loved Christopher, we quietly tolerated each other, offering up only an occasional eye roll when one of us was being particularly bitchy.

In 1989, Brian got sick. Really sick. It started with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and continued into full blown AIDS. By the time “Poison,” a film he executive produced for Todd Haynes, came out he could barely walk. Astonishingly, he found rollerblading an easier way to get around and I often saw him on the streets of Chelsea, a wry smile on his face, as he zipped around bicyclists and pedestrians. Despite my abhorrence for all things physical, he became determined to teach me how to skate and I begrudgingly agreed to a lesson. I will never forget the autumn day he attempted to teach me. Brian was skinny and pale and he held my hand as he tried to guide me to grace. I was awkward, clumsy and covered head to toe in protective gear. Together, we laughed in mock horror as I fell, time after time after time. We both knew that this was likely going to be our last afternoon playing together and despite all our differences over the years, we held hands as tight as we could, not only because I needed the support, but also because we didn’t want to let go. One of the last things he said to me that afternoon was this: don’t be so afraid of failing and falling. You will always get up.

Brian died on February 27th, 1992. He was twenty-nine years old. After he passed away, Christopher didn’t want to live in their apartment anymore, but he still had to fulfill his lease. I offered to sublet the apartment from him so that I could try to do the one thing that I was so afraid of failing at: making art. I would sublet their apartment and try to use it as a painting studio.

The day I moved in was warm and sunny. The apartment was big and white and silent, and as I walked around the familiar space, my footsteps echoed in the emptiness. When I got to the bedroom I saw a package leaning against the wall. Taped to the front was a hand-written note from Christopher that read: “Brian wanted you to have this.” As I pulled away the brown wrapping paper, I saw it was the Barbara Kruger print I had admired for so long, so long ago.


Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Wonderful, touching story.

4/13/2007 08:36:00 PM  
Blogger MCALDWELLC said...

beautiful...thanks for that.

4/18/2007 12:10:00 PM  
OpenID noho34 said...

truly moving, this could be a movie not to trivialize this very personal story. love your writing

7/07/2009 07:47:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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