Reputations: Bruce Mau
‘I think it is one of the paradoxical conditions of design authorship, that you have to be both producer and critic simultaneously. I can maintain a kind of double life.’
Canadian Bruce Mau, 40, exemplifies a new breed of design auteur. His current book, Life Style, a 627-page manifesto, monograph and virtual museum is, according to New York Times design critic Herbert Muschamp, a ‘strip tease performed with an endless variety of veils.’ The book, he says, ‘tantalises readers with glimpses into the thinking of one of the most creative minds at work in design today.’ But note that the word ‘graphic’ does not appear in this statement. Mau’s career, though rooted in graphic design, has spread into the realms of architecture, film and landscape design, often in equal collaboration with professionals from other spheres, notably the architects Rem Koolhaas, with whom he co-authored the monolithic S,M,L,XL (see Eye no. 15 vol. 4) and Frank Gehry, for whose Walt Disney Concert Hall he designed the signage and typographic identity.
After periods in the early 1980s with Pentagram in London and Spencer Francey Peters in Toronto, Mau co-founded Public Good, a design practice dedicated to public and non-profit organisations. In 1985 he left to design Zone 1/2, an anthology of writings on the contemporary city, and to set up his own studio, Bruce Mau Design, in Toronto. He subsequently developed the consistent visual identity of Zone books and remains their design director.
At a time when layering, clutter, and distressed typography appeared to rule, Mau wedded Modernist economy to a personal passion for visual eloquence. He has designed identities for the Netherlands Architecture Institute, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and, more recently, the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Between 1991 and 1993 he was creative director of I.D. magazine and has worked with the Getty Research Institute on a wide range of publications.
His many collaborative projects have led to work with the artist / composer Gordon Monahan, film-maker Michael Snow and choreographer Meg Stuart. For the Vienna Festival 2000 Bruce Mau Design created, with André Lepecki, STRESS, a multimedia installation about the constructs of the human body. His studio designed another remarkable book published to accompany the exhibition ‘Douglas Gordon • Black Spot’ at Tate Liverpool. Mau also worked with Rem Koolhaas and Petra Blaisse to develop the winning submission for the landscaping of Downsview Park in Toronto (see spreads on p17). From giving visual form to the texts of others, Mau has become a thoughtful commentator on issues of consumption, persuasion and communication. Life Style is the latest vehicle with which he can consider the role of design in politics, culture and art.
Steven Heller: How do you feel about the concept of design authorship?
Bruce Mau: If you take that term apart and look at what it means to be one or the other, you see a configuration that is, in some sense, oppositional. The author, at least mythically, has a kind of contemplative sensibility and responsibility, and is meant to observe and engage in the world and derive from the world some useful substance.
The designer, on the other hand, is constantly producing. And so they’re almost at odds. What we’ve tried to do in the studio is to push design into the production of substance and bring to design practice the techniques of the author.
SH: What are those techniques?
BM: A direct engagement with the world. One of the principal differences between design (as it’s classically defined) and authorship is the degree to which you deal directly with substance. Mostly, design applies to previously filtered material. When we finished S,M,L,XL, I was teaching at Rice University and I wanted to convey to the people I was working with there what we were trying to do. I made a diagram that became quite significant for me. It shows a kind of wave where you move up and down, and you engage with the world. Its amplitude shows our ability to travel into the world freely and to choose objects of our own interest for consideration. That’s what an author is charged with. Typically, the author crystallises the issues and positions, then engages design in the communication of the resulting statement or text.
SH: And what are you doing to bring these different entities together?
BM: We have tried to superimpose design practice on the author’s role, to travel the amplitude, and to engage the world. Now, that presents problems. The reason, I think, that literature has the power that it does is that it has the freedom that it has. And that freedom derives from a disconnection from the demands of production. Designers don’t have that luxury.
SH: So do you just carve away a chunk of time to practise authorship?
BM: I do it by hook or by crook. With my new book I have engineered a situation where I have to produce as an author, so the demands drive the production.
SH: Let’s talk about your book, Life Style. In your introduction you say that few terms have been as savagely commodified and gutted of meaning as the phrase “life style”. So why have you selected this buzz-like title?
BM: I’ve always had a kind of allergy to the idea of style as a practice, and always imagined that there were deeper motivations that might be mobilised. It’s important that these two terms be separated, the idea of “life” and “style” each being a project. If we embrace style as the new outcome of our work, we realise that style becomes a philosophical concept and loses its superficiality. Instead of something ephemeral it becomes a deeply significant idea. Our work is about living a certain way, and those choices constitute a style. The real intersection that constitutes our work is the merging of life and style.
SH: It’s an ambitious goal, to redeem a phrase so associated with the ephemeral.
BM: It will be very interesting to see what happens to the term. But I think it’s actually in some way a land-grab, to take back some terrain that was lost and acknowledge the central place of these apparently insignificant practices in twenty-first century life.
SH: In your book you use the word “we”. Do you always work collaboratively?
BM: The work of the studio is a nest of collaborations. It begins with the collaborations inside the studio. The studio then forms collaborations with people outside of the studio, like Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry, and other artists and designers. The authorship of the book is itself a complex set. It is a collaboration with Kyo Maclear and Bart Testa, its editors, and a design team led by Chris Rowat, and its producer Jim Shedden. I have a situation where, when it comes time to take something like this into the public realm, there is a necessary reduction of complexity. The book is about the studio as a production, and I am responsible for the studio. It’s a complex group of people, producing all sorts of things – and authorship is one of them.
SH: In Life Style you tap social issues. How did you choose the concerns to address and/or attack?
BM: It arose out of a project to understand the direction of our work. In order to know where I wanted to take our work, I needed to be able to articulate the context in which the objects we make are obliged to live. If I can make a general claim for the book’s utility, it’s that we all live in this context, and we all work against this background. In order to have any sense of how things are evolving, we need to understand the evolutionary nature of the context. Marshall McLuhan used this great phrase: “The things that work us over.” The things that are working us over have evolved into a new set of forces. So I wanted to have a sense of what those forces were, and I began to put together an inventory of those conditions. On the one hand, I attack it; but at the same time, I embrace it. I think it is one of the paradoxical conditions of design authorship, that you have to be both producer and critic simultaneously. I can maintain a kind of double life.
SH: Does that imply a degree of hypocrisy?
BM: I don’t think it’s hypocrisy. I think that it’s a necessary condition. The alternatives are: you don’t think or you don’t do. If you are producing image culture then you are part of the problem. Such is life!
SH: There are many different ideas in this book, from attacks on public relations to observations on tourism. But the book is also a portfolio for Bruce Mau Design. Is there a subtext influencing how people should view your work?
BM: It’s not so much of a subtext. For example, if there is an economy of the image, it has new rules and regulations and it creates a new dynamic that we’re just beginning to understand. The book, in a way, uses our studio as a lens through which to look at this issue and to imagine a practice of image-production that is fully engaged.
SH: You use this word “engaged” throughout the book. What do you mean by “engaged”?
BM: It’s the capacity to look at something in a deep way, and to deal with the complexities of a problem and a project, and to deal with the contradictions and the difficulties that are raised. Let’s say that we don’t always achieve it, and we don’t achieve even some of it on everything. But the book is about an effort to achieve it. You accept with a kind of Zen-like approach the conditions you discover.
SH: I have a question about heft. Part of the appeal of S,M,L,XL was its physical form. It’s a veritable building of a book, and that is a bold statement. Life Style is similarly hefty, over 600 pages. Why?
BM: We didn’t set out with a fixed idea of what it would be, and we let the thing evolve. We were fairly tough on what and how much to include. But one of the things I learned from S,M,L,XL, was that we could have done 90 per cent of the work and had ten per cent of the resonance. It comes from pushing something to its conclusion. It’s like pushing it into the kind of form that it needs to be.
SH: Did you have a predetermined limit?
BM: No. The publishers were very open, and they said they wanted me to do the book that I needed to do. I actually expected it to be a little bit bigger. And it became clear that the thing found a nice rhythm.
For me, it’s a compositional issue and finding a kind of resonance, and giving the thing a shape, but also doing something that produces a certain complexity that challenges resolution. It’s not impossible but it’s more difficult to do on a smaller scale.
SH: Did you have a sense of the audience?
BM: I wanted to do something that would be generally useful. Also, I don’t enter most design competitions, so a lot of the work has not been seen in the broader community. More and more of our work is not object-based. Some of our projects are not even visible; for example, certain things that appear in the “Research” section of the book. Some of it has visible substance, but increasingly our work is organisational, conceptual, programming work that may or may not have a visible outcome. Often it’s attached to a visible outcome that evolves eventually. In order to move away from a classical definition of what we do, we needed a certain amount of real estate in the book to establish adjacencies, and that drove a lot of the decision-making. What’s very exciting is to see that design thinking – and the practice of design – can be liberated from the visual without losing its ambition for the visual. For me, the real beauty of a project is all these different things happening alongside one another, and producing frictions that can only be caused by that proximity. It’s mostly not in the individual thing but in the space between the things that all the fun happens.
SH: Are you referring to the fourteen short stories that are spread throughout the book?
BM: For me the stories are the most fun things because I loved doing them, and I didn’t know that I could do them. But the stories are, in a way, a very meagre Pointillist image. Only instead of a Seurat, you have, you know, 40 dots on a page. So I had to inject an image into it. It’s in the space between the stories that you understand what’s really happening in the studio. But you also, as a reader, have to imagine it yourself.
SH: Is there an analogy to another medium?
BM: The obvious resonance is cinema.
SH: You use the term “cinematic migration” . . .
BM: By that I mean cinematic technique and thinking becoming part of other practices. I made a collaboration with the film-maker François Girard, who did The Red Violin. Of all the people I showed S,M,L,XL, to, he had the fastest uptake. From the moment I explained it he saw exactly how it was done. He directed Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and he immediately recognised the episodic nature of S,M,L,XL.
SH: A number of books made by graphic designers over the last few years have tried to break out of the traditional linear narrative: Pure Fuel, Tomato’s Process, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. Did you consciously try to separate yourself from these?
BM: We did look at others, like the Tomato book, and every once in a while we saw things that seemed promising. In the end, though, they were always disappointing. It had to do with the intersection of content and design. They would look like they would be fascinating, and we’d get there, and there’d be no there there!
SH: Another of your recurring themes is what you call a “Global Image Economy.” You say “we’re doomed to a life of decorating and redecorating in the Global Image Economy.” But you also see the designer as “one who cannot afford to be stable or to look at boundaries as impassable.” How can designers make changes in such a powerful, forceful economy without forsaking their livelihoods?
BM: I should clarify that, because it’s a little out of context. I say that all these things are true if we fail to act. I think that’s the proviso, that the onus is on us to engage with these things and to deal with them. I don’t presume to have a formula for how to do this. I don’t think cheerleading is very helpful, nor do I think conventional resistance is useful in this context.
SH: So you reject the tactics of the anti-branders?
BM: The brands are the least of our problems. The brands are, in a sense, a kind of democratic function of the market. In other words, we know where Coca-Cola lives. It’s the millions of numbered companies that we know nothing about that are most likely to be dumping chemicals into our water supply. It’s not Coca-Cola. The brands are mechanisms by which we hold companies accountable. If every company were branded we would have a more accountable market. So the sort of knee-jerk anti-branding sensibility of Adbusters is not productive. You need a more complex set of responses than that.
And the people at Wired who say they’re living a revolution are also at another extreme of the spectrum. We need a middle ground where you acknowledge the complexities of your work and produce simultaneously.
SH: You also talk about “camouflage industries”, the vast industry “devoted to manufacturing appearances that are subtly at odds with reality.” By raising these issues, aren’t you tacitly calling for action?
BM: Yes, I am calling for action, but I am not prescribing action.
SH: So we all have to come up with individual responses?
BM: As the scale of business changes, it’s more and more difficult to find a pure thing. So we need something else. And I think that something else is what we call an ‘engaged practice.’ It means having some kind of locator that places you in context to these things, and that locator is the ability to look at what’s happening and to understand its implications.
The real locator is engagement. It’s only through the kind of abstraction that has become design practice that we allow ourselves to disconnect from the implications of our work. What I am saying is, “Let’s put the implications back together with the work.”
SH: In the first section the juxtapositions of images suggest that you are more or less siding with the Adbusters approach. Not necessarily the specific activity, but the general sensibility. And when you talk about engagement, it is about taking responsibility. How one takes that responsibility is the question. But in the beginning of the book, which then leads into how you have practised your life’s work, you’re calling for an overthrow specifically of “camouflage industries”, “ideas of surveillance”, of violence that occurs in the culture. The reader of the book may want to know more. Are there any prescriptions?
BM: No. I think that people need to produce those for themselves. There’s no set formula.
SH: The “Freeway Condition” section states: “With culture set at cruise-control, clarity trumps complexity. Known quantity Toys-R-Us wins out every time over enterprising but ambiguous mom-and-pop stores. Uniqueness becomes a traffic hazard.” I like that notion. But I’m interested in the image that you selected to illustrate that particular statement: an old VW. Will you explain?
BM: I am reminded of that line sometimes a cigar . . . But I won’t hide behind that. That was simply such a great image of stopping.
SH: Throughout the book you sound cautionary notes like “Don’t follow the conformist view.” You then show your own work, which presumably hasn’t followed the conformist view. Is this intended as a counterpoint to what you are criticising, or a reminder to yourself to remain vigilant?
BM: I like to do work that has real substance and significance. And to do this you have to understand it conceptually, otherwise you are designing for an era that has passed. In order to understand what’s going on you have to understand the context as it evolves. That helps to direct the work. But it’s not a matter of saying, you know, “Four legs bad and two legs good.” You can see a concept that has so inserted itself into the way we live that it’s hard to even recognise it as a presence. And yet it remaps everything in the world according to its methods. And that remapping is part of our own work. Because we’re either remapping unconsciously according to the message, or we’re conscious of travelling with it or against it.
SH: You use the phrase “A lot of density” to describe new media. Is this your way to describe our dependence on virtual reality as a distraction from hard truths?
BM: It’s a suggestion that we have, in a way, liberated ourselves from certain dependencies, and that contrary to a lot of free-floating anxiety about the issue, almost the inverse of what we would imagine turns out to be the case. That the more a thing is reproduced and circulated, the more the original gains in significance. [Walter] Benjamin predicted that it would deplete the original of its significance, but in fact the opposite has come to pass. There isn’t an artist alive today who doesn’t want to be reproduced.
SH: What was your purpose in writing “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”? Is it your first or last will and testament, or a self-help manual?
BM: I did it because my wife’s sister was hounding me for a contribution to a magazine she was doing! But [the manifesto] really emerges out of the process of the work, as a way of saying, “This is what we do.” And it had a very strange resonance that I’d never expected. I published a short version of it in my sister-in-law’s magazine in Toronto, then when I went to a conference in Amsterdam, ‘Doors of Perception’, I presented a longer version. There was an incredibly positive response and several requests to publish it, and it’s since been published in eight languages. But again, it’s part of a complex, kind of fractal portrait of the studio and of the practice.
SH: You talk constantly about the studio. But isn’t the work really YOU?
BM: Well, I’m part of the work. But the work happens in a very complex set of relationships. The studio has a boundary that is permeable; some people are inside, some people in the thickness of the boundary, and some people are outside – and they’re constantly moving in and through it. So my role is somehow to facilitate that movement and the production inside and outside and through it. I wrote the manifesto out of the experience of the studio. In other words, as much as I produce the studio, the studio produces me.
SH: When you write about the studio as an entity, you talk about inventing a voice. But you are the front man. So how do you balance the needs of the individual against those of the collective?
BM: We need both simultaneously. I have my own experience, I have my own direction, I have my own intentions and my own voice. A good friend pointed out that you can’t produce authorship as a collective: somebody has to have a singular voice. So I need to do that. But I can also produce a collective entity, and that entity can produce any number of singular voices, and can give voice to any number of ideas. One of the most rewarding things about the studio is to see real voices emerging. I designed the studio in such a way that the people in it have a full experience of the work, that they themselves have an engagement in the way that I did when I first started the studio, working myself. That’s the way for it to produce character.
SH: What next, now that your book is published? Do you have any anxieties about the future?
BM: Yes. Actually I made a little diagram. We did a competition, a 322-acre park in Toronto – it’s in the book. It was a competition with Rem Koolhaas and Petra Blaisse. We just never imagined that we would win . . . and we won.
So I woke up the other day and I realised, ‘My God, I’ve become a landscape architect!’ I was saying to one of the people in the studio that our ideal is to have the status of the artist, the schedule of the author, the paycheque of the businessman, the complexities of the landscape architect, and the anxieties of the designer – namely not very many. And I ended up instead with the paycheque of the artist, the anxieties of the author, the complexities of the businessman, the schedule of the designer, and the status of an art director!
First published Eye no. 38 vol. 10, 2000