Deutsch Interviews: Lee Davis of The Center for Social Design at MICA


Lee Davis is a scholar-in-residence in the Center for Social Design at MICA where he also teaches in the Masters of Arts in Social Design program. Prior to his work at MICA, Davis spent 15 years as the co-CEO and co-founder of NESsT, a pioneer in incubating social businesses in emerging market countries of Latin America and Eastern Europe. He studied art at Connecticut College and Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins, where he got his Masters. Along with Mike Weikert, director of social design at MICA, Davis is helping lead a charge of forward-thinking social designers and students to improve Baltimore and the world.

This interview series is adapted from New York Times Sunday Review called, Download and will feature great innovators, designers and creators in Baltimore.


It’s all about being back in a design school after 20 years. Having started as a designer and then left to do other things and now coming back, I feel like my eyes are over-stimulated right now. It’s amazing how much influence that has on how you think. Even just being here in the environment of a design school, I feel like creates a whole different mental process. Especially right now, it’s so vibrant at MICA with all of the students putting up their shows, even in the departments that I’m not really connected with you suddenly see the product of their work over the course of the year. And every week the gallery is changing.  That for me is something I missed a lot over the last two decades of my work. That kind of visual stimulation is so fun to be around again.


I wish I had more time to read. Obviously, when you’re a teacher you need to read all the stuff you assign and you need to read the work the students turn in, so during the academic year you don’t have a whole lot of time to read other things. We just had our Visiting Scholar, Alison Clarke from the Papenek Foundation and we had assigned Papenek’s book, Design for the Real World, to our students. I hadn’t read that for more than twenty years, so it was cool to go back to that. It was something that inspired me as a young designer. It was interesting to look at it in the context of how the field of social design has evolved and also see how so many of the problems are still the same. I also read Alison’s other book, Tupperware. I love really obscure, random little things like that. I would have never picked up a book about Tupperware, but it turned out to be a metaphor for much larger social change and changing gender roles in society. It’s about entrepreneurship and women being empowered and generating their own money for the first time in the 50s. That’s a very interesting story: using a traditionally commercial design icon as a metaphor for broader social change.


Well my partner, Daniel is a composer, conductor and professional musician. So music is obviously an important part of our lives, especially Brazilian music because he is from Brazil. His area of study is around baroque choral music, but ironically we don’t actually listen to music much at home because that’s his work. He is de-constructing music all of the time so it’s almost a distraction for him at home. So then we end up listening to pop stuff. Also, Baltimore has different sounds than in California where we live. The sounds of the city are so distinct. I am bicoastal and travel back and forth. The first night back in Baltimore is always over-stimulating – it’s hard to sleep because there are all of these different noises.


When I’m here I tend to eat out more than when I’m back home in California. The Baltimore food has developed so much since I went to grad school at Hopkins 20 years ago – it’s like a foodie city now. And you’ve got these quirky, little family owned places, which I love so much and you’ve got places like Woodberry Kitchen, which are phenomenal. I try to go to new places all the time – I haven’t even really had a chance to repeat. Being from New York and California, wine is really important to me so I tend to like the places where they also have a good wine list. Which now, is pretty much everywhere.


Definitely red wine. And having lived in Latin America and California, it’s definitely the heavier, very earthy, ‘new world’ kind of reds. I don’t really consider myself to be an expert on wine but somehow I’ve been labeled as that here in Baltimore because it seems everyone is going for beer and I don’t really drink much beer so I’m always asking for the wine list. And it’s always like “Oh, well let Lee pick out the wine.” But Baltimore really has become a foodie place and with good food comes good wine.


I feel like I want to turn this back to what we’re doing now to build the Center for Social Design at MICA. But more than following, I’d say leading because we are really on the cutting edge of something great. I feel like we’re not following anybody. We are part of a movement, but we are at the front of that movement. Just in the last year we’ve been able to really put it on the map. The recruiting for the MA in Social Design program has gone up as well, and we will have 14 students instead of nine this year. That being said, I’m learning a lot and have been hesitant to talk too much and really have been listening and reflecting.  I did a a lot of talking over the last 15 years as co-CEO of NESsT – so in that respect, I am following. 

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