PRINT Summer 2001


Bruce Mau

GRAPHIC DESIGN IS A RUNAWAY bull market Bruce Mau traces to the burgeoning power of the image in our technology-driven new economy, a power facilitated, he argues, by two software innovations: The first, exemplified by Photoshop, merges inseparably the real and surreal; the second, Adobe's page description language, weds previously estranged bedfellows, type and image, into a unified graphic instrument. Since the inception of PDL in the early '80s, virtuosi have wielded that instrument to dazzling effect: David Carson, Droog, Rebecca Méndez, and others deserving of admiration, if less known.

Yet among his peers Mau stands distinct, above all for his sustained invention at Zone Books. Like Warhol's prints or Godard's films, Mau's designs for the critical-studies imprint step beyond disciplinary achievement to become definitive cultural production. His Zone work is long overdue for serious study, a conspicuous failing of the critical community that both called forth Life Style and unduly burdened it with responsibility. Like a total solar eclipse on a partly cloudy day, Mau's anxiously awaited book astonishes and frustrates by turns: Even when the clouds give way, the sun stands missing in all its glory; it remains a study in obfuscation made magnificent by shiny trim.

Life Style is three books shuffled together under one luscious cover—under eight luscious covers, to be precise, as it comes in various hues of fabric—and, of course, a Bruce Mau Design product. It unfurls as a fantasia on technique, exploring his riffs on modernism and seriality, his fascination with graphs, his signature image underlays and exaggerations, his scats on color, his font-astics, his hypnotic formal compositions. Yet, unlike the obtuse S,M,L,XL, his 1996 collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, this book never upstages its subject matter.

“Life Projects” frames Mau's progress from book to brand as an episodic road film, a kind of Bonnie and Clyde in which the illicit, partly frigid couple information and desire breaks loose, steals a car, and sets out on the global highway doin' some good things, some OK ones, and some really bad ones, though you never stop loving 'em. The 130 pages devoted to Zone offer an absorbing history, teasing thumbnails, and a stream of examples, from the incredible covers of The Invention of Pornography and The Society of the Spectacle to visionary creations like the cinéroman La Jetée and the anthology Zone 6: Incorporations. For a ten-second primer on the sway of a cover, flip back and forth between pages 111 and 122–23 to see Gilles Deleuze's Bergsonism cast first in the white minimalism of Zone's prototype, then in its ultimate cover, a shoo-in for the ultimate cover. Mau began with Lartigue's photograph Grand Prix de l'ACF, Automobile Delage, 26 juin 1912, admired for its seizure of matter in motion in multiple time frames—momentary, situational, and historical. He stretched it to the edge of recognition, colored it from center to outer edges with symmetrical green-to-orange spectra, à la redshift, another sensuous evocation of matter in time. Then he dropped the image behind the titles, where it insinuates itself on mind and mood like a film sound track, through that entry door beneath close attention that so intrigued Walter Benjamin. The result both enacts and evidences the reflections on matter, duration, memory, intuition, and the élan vital that Deleuze takes such pains to solicit from the writings of Bergson.

Problem is, there's not a word about any of this in Life Style, just the images first inkling of a curious tendency in the book: The more fascinating a work, the less Mau writes about it (and the smaller the print); the less distinguished, the more he strains to prove its merits. He does take the time to explicate Incorporations, a truly insane design. For it, Mau and editor Sanford Kwinter concocted a graphic alchemy meant to transform the volume into a living organism. They mobilized every element from letter to chapter and knit these into a complex, throbbing weave. The “making of” is amazing, but the result is a fabulous, cacophonous flop.

Unfortunately, “Life Projects” suggests that the further BMD strays from the book, the more commonplace the firm's talents become. There are exceptions: The “Empires of the Sun” exhibition, commissioned by a German utility company in 1994 and brought to a halt by Mau's own extravagant overplanning, promises to have been something extraordinary; and the information-architecture scheme for Koolhaas's forthcoming Seattle library is a gem. But there's a lot of just, well, professional stuff.

The place to befriend Mau is “Life Theories,” a grab bag of engaging writing on the discipline, spiced with guileless advice, wit, and arresting aperçus. His infectious obsession with typography takes wing here, in “Can We Envision,” a manic list of font wishes (“a font that learns . . . a font of youth”), and in “Reading: Shaping Time,” an essay on typography with a great object lesson: a passage from Pauline Réage's pornographic novel, The Story of O, set out in the style of the Bible.

Prefer to loathe Mau? No problem—turn to “Life Stories,” in which superego and id grab the mike for a screeching set of spoiled, name-dropping, mean-spirited, patronizing, self-absorbed rants. This strain needed some of that surgical editing Mau professes to have admired at Zone. Writing does strange things to us all; where were you, Phaidon?

Jeffrey Kipnis is curator of architecture at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Columbus, Ohio.


Bruce Mau, Life Style. London: Phaidon Press, 2000. 625 pages.