Mau and Then

New York

Left: Parsons dean Paul Goldberger with graphic designer Bruce Mau. Right: Parsons faculty member Carlos Teixeira with MoMA curator Paola Antonelli. (All photos: Marty Heitner)

Listening to a graphic designer lecture would seem to be like recording the mating song of a peacock: informative, but compromised by a lack of visuals. Yet Bruce Mau, the activist graphic designer most celebrated for his work on S, M, L, XL, the 1376-page Rem Koolhaas monograph that’s been required reading for architects for the past decade, wants us to appreciate what we don't see. He was in town last Thursday for a conversation with Parsons The New School for Design Dean and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger—part of a series featuring the likes of Michael Graves, Donna Karan, and Chuck Close. Mau told Goldberger, “The holy grail of design is invisibility. If you can produce banality, you've really got something.” A truly successful design carries out its function so well that it becomes everyday and we cease to notice its form. We think about the phone call, not the phone; or in Mau's somewhat more romantic terms, “we feel love, not a conscious awareness of the device that is making that feeling possible.”

The audience was a mix of faux-hawked and backpacked Parsons students and, toward the front, a somewhat higher-maintenance constituency that might have known Mau from his glossier work—environments and branding for Samsung, Gagosian, Maharam, and Knoll. The designer both lamented and celebrated our ability to inhabit our built environment and use our gadgets without seeing or thinking about them: “For most of us,” he observed, “design is invisible until it fails. We produce extraordinary situations every day, but we make them invisible. When a plane crashes, we become aware of the force involved in putting it in the air.” Or as Georges Perec wrote in 1973, “Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked.” But unlike many technophilic designers, Mau's interest is less in the plane as a sublime object or jet-set stage set than as an embodiment of an all-too-invisible network of complex technological, ecological, and anthropological forces—many of which, unless redesigned, will take us to hell in a handbasket. This is part of the message of “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design,” a traveling exhibition, book, and ongoing project organized last year by Mau in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery. As Goldberger summarized, “The lessons of ‘Massive Change’ are that everything is designed, and design may save the world.” Mau invoked an earlier advocate of systems thinking and '60s-style whole-Earth sustainability: “We met Stewart Brand in the course of the project. He said that when people think things are getting worse, they behave badly. They will take what they want when they can get it. On the contrary, when they think things are getting better, they invest, they share, and they support an open world.”

Left: Associate Dean Tim Marshall, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, and Parsons's director of exhibitions Christopher Mount. Right: Bruce Mau is all hands.

A populist mix of the technocratic, the utilitarian, and the aesthetic, this kind of vision can be hard to integrate with the lively political and commercial jumble that is public policy and private practice. Mau noted the influence of “nimby” suburbanites in resisting sensible high-density transit-adjacent housing in Toronto. Discussing his collaboration with Koolhaas on the signage, wayfinding, and other aspects of the acclaimed Seattle Public Library, Mau lamented that much of their interdisciplinary research and exchange didn't fit into conventional corporate contracts and billing, and therefore wasn't entirely funded: “The library's management firm says, 'You don't have a line-item for open collaboration, you have a line-item for graphics.'” The crowd was at its quietest when Goldberger asked if perhaps the compensation had just gone to Koolhaas instead. It hadn't, Mau replied.

One woman asked Mau what his ideal New York project would be. The expansive response: “We used to think about design in a way that was object-based, like, ‘Let's make a better taxi.’ I would ask how do you design an ecology of movement.” After the lecture, the usual scrum of schmoozing students, follow-up questioners, and black-clad faculty jammed around the designer. Someone offered him a shiny chrome scooter. He stepped aboard, and for a moment his formidable silver-ponytailed form moved smoothly through the jostling crowd, through the lobby and into the future.

Thomas de Monchaux