28 June 2012
Manifesto or monograph?
Life StyleBruce Mau <br>Edited by Kyo Maclear with Bart Testa<br>Phaidon, £45<br><br>
Within graphic design circles Bruce Mau (see Reputations, Eye no. 38 vol. 10) is primarily known as a publication designer, through his work for the Zone publishing program, his redesign of I.D. in the early 1990s and for architect Rem Koolhaas’s 1996 opus, S,M,L,XL. Life Style, which chronicles his studio’s output over the past fifteen years, is surprising for the range of projects beyond journals and books.
Bruce Mau Design’s motto "Avoid Fields. Jump Fences” signals the studio’s trans-disciplinary ambitions, which are made manifest in numerous collaborations with architects and artists. The range of projects is equally diverse and includes conceptual development for a museum about the Mississippi River, potential exhibitions about the culture of energy for a German power company, a proposal for a park in Toronto and a flexible identity for the Netherlands Architecture Institute. The common thread running through
such work is the role of the designer as a "content provider”, someone intimately involved in the conceptual development of projects and not simply their aesthetic resolution. This strategy not only defines the studio’s purpose but also distinguishes it from most other firms.
As the title indicates, the central theme is lifestyle, with a desire for "recuperating and reinvesting the term . . . so that it speaks of the designer’s role in shaping the lives we lead and the world in which we live.” The definition of "lifestyle” as a way of living that reflects the values of a particular person or group gained popularity in the postwar period, and was based not solely on class or occupation – one’s productive labour – but instead on one’s patterns of consumption. That this term is now equated with marketing strategies and demographic analyses that help produce (not merely reflect) values by catering to or creating these lifestyles, parallels the dominance of a global consumer culture. Rather than embrace this reality, Mau tries to rescue the idea of lifestyle by connecting it to the productive ends of design, instead of the consuming impulses of marketing. He understands the importance of style as an integral element of design thus moving the discussion beyond moralising. The contents are in three interspersed categories: life theories (manifestos, observations), life projects (the work and portfolio), and life stories (anecdotes).
Mau devotes much of his energies to rehabilitating the image of the contemporary book: whether the face of an academic reader, exhibition catalogue or a monograph. This is not to say that attention isn’t paid to text, or to details, especially typographic ones. The mark-up Mau devised for Zone books – back in the 1980s at the eclipse of phototypesetting – reproduced in Life Style should be required reading in all typography classes.
Life Style enters the publishing marketplace with strong sales for books by leading designers. However, the conventional design monograph has been reduced to a picture book, one that imagines design as a formal exercise. The end result of too many monographs is something resembling a glorified capabilities brochure. These overwrought tomes have outpaced even the paper sample promotion as the main venue for designer self-expression. When an attempt is made at voicing a philosophy or outlining some visionary principles, the end result is too often an incomprehensible miasma of words drifting across the page in search of their meaning, or fragmented sentences posing as aphoristic profundity. While this publishing genre seems ripe for innovation, the expectations are higher for Mau to avoid this trap, particularly with the critical success of S,M,L,XL. That book reconceived the architectural monograph (which unlike its design counterpart suffers not from stylistic bloat but from visual anaemia) by categorising its projects by scale and, as its title alludes, presenting itself as a kind of prêt-a-porter of architectural theories.
Life Style’s contents are described with detail, giving the reader a sense for the process involved, the constraints encountered and the methodologies employed. The projects are not merely presented but evaluated, allowing at least a modicum of self-criticism. Thus, like any good lesson, it provides examples of both successes and failures. Although the narrative has a propensity for explanations derived from an oddly linear model of communication, it manages to render them intelligible. The book mixes in some obvious examples drawn from popular culture, such as the transformations of Madonna and David Bowie, or the changing visage of Betty Crocker, all of which illustrate arguments being put forth by Mau regarding the shifting nature of identity in contemporary society. The book also contains de rigueur images of social (un)reality – plastic surgery, ersatz environments, global franchises, media mogul portraits – a strategy of visual commentary that recalls the Deste Foundation catalogues designed by the late Dan Friedman, or the global image bank employed by the late Tibor Kalman for Colors. While all of these cultural references serve to illustrate the points being made, they ultimately leave us wanting more. What are we really saying about the role design can play in these rapid transformations? In some ways, the projects are a provisional response, but by wrapping the book in this larger framework the expectations it sets cannot be completely fulfilled. The end product is torn between its desire to be a manifesto and its embodiment as a monograph.
There is certainly enough style, but what about the life? A pulse animates the book and gives it life. The sense one takes away from Life Style is that Mau’s is a studio practice that has been fortunate enough to find its life at the intersection of many others. What transpires is an exchange of ideas, which is in the end one of the founding principles of the book.
First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10, 2001