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How Bruce Mau Turned Design, and the World, On Its Head

‘The present day is the best time in human history to be alive and working,’ the design visionary declares.

Dorothy Woodend 16 May

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Who is Bruce Mau?

It seems like a simple question.

Designer, thinker, boy from Sudbury, father, husband, visionary, iconoclast, optimist — turns out there are a lot of different definitions on offer.

As the documentary portrait Mau makes clear, the man contains multitudes, and as such provokes an equally varied reaction. Some people love him, and others aren’t so certain.

Whatever his shortcomings, Mau has a steely determination to keep going, to try new things and to think extremely big. The film offers a whoosh of fresh ideas that comes wafting off the screen like a cool breeze as Mau stalks about, often playing with a Slinky, dressed in obligatory black and giggling like a schoolboy. Anyone who can make it out of deepest darkest Sudbury, Ontario, and then go on to become one of the preeminent designers of the day is probably capable of anything. So, beneath all the TED-talk trappings and pithy statements about designing for perpetuity is something profoundly necessary. Like saving the world!

But let’s begin at the beginning with the man’s origin story. Raised in the coldest, crappiest corner of Sudbury by violent alcoholic parents, young Mau came of age in a house with no art, no books, and only a small black and white television to bring in images of the outside world. It was on this TV that he first saw footage of Expo 67 in Montreal. He immediately gravitated to the idea of bigger, infinitely more interesting places than Sudbury, a landscape so bleak that NASA sent its astronauts to train there as it most resembled the surface of the moon.

It was this type of profound deprivation that forged Mau’s determination to get the hell out of Sudbury and see the world. It’s a classic narrative, albeit with a cold Canadian edge. As he says in the film, at age 17 he’d never been anywhere and had never even heard the term “design,” but he left for art school in Toronto and never looked back.

From this point forward, a meteoric rise ensued. After leaving art school, Mau worked with a corporate design firm in the U.K. and then went on to start his own company. It was an early collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas that catapulted him to notoriety and fame. The pair created the design bible entitled S,M,L,XL, a brick of a book so hefty that you could use it as a murder weapon.

In its 1,376 pages were “Essays, manifestoes, diaries, fairy tales, travelogues” — ephemera of all variety designed (heh…) to remake, re-examine, reimagine almost everything about the designed and built environment. As described in breathless jacket copy, the tome “illuminates the conditions of architecture today — its splendours and miseries — exploring and revealing the corrosive impact of politics, context, the economy, globalization — the world.”

In other words, think big.

Hundreds of photographic images line a wall, floor and furniture. At the end of the room, a written piece titled “Image Economies” reflects on the centrality of image production in everyday life.
Bruce Mau’s Massive Change explored the potential for design to solve the urgent problems of our time. The large-scale exhibition premiered at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004. Photo via the online portfolio of Bruce Mau Design.

The success of S,M,L,XL attracted the attention of other famous folk as well as institutions. Soon architect Frank Gehry and the Museum of Modern Art came a’courting. MoMA hired Mau to redesign their communications identity in an extensive rebranding process, the end result of which was that he advised them not to change a single thing. As his friend artist James Lahey says in the film: “Now, how many people could resist the temptation to put their fucking name on that word mark and change it?”

Although Mau may have started as a graphic designer, things got a little looser in terms of his actual job as he progressed. It’s also not always readily apparent in the film what he does for a living, perhaps because he does so many things.

He makes books, designs installations, reimagines the future, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Some of the major projects that Mau has been involved with — whether it’s redesigning Mecca, as to avoid people being trampled to death on their way to make pilgrimage or rebranding the entire country of Guatemala — are incredibly large-scale. The Mecca redesign was conceived to last a thousand years, but things don’t always work out exactly as planned.

Guatemala is a case in point. Contacted initially by the country’s education minister, Mau was offered the opportunity to reframe the entire concept of the nation, more than 36 years of violent and bloody civil war had wiped out the peoples’ ability to dream and destroyed their faith in the future. In an effort to reawaken a sense of possibility, a name change was proposed.

As the Mau explains in the film, the word Guate was originally used by the local Indigenous people, but when the Spanish colonizers arrived, they decided to call it Guatemala, mala meaning bad. As Mau quips, “How would you like to wake up every day in the United States of Bad Place?”

In order to change this, the designer stuck an “a” right in the centre, changing it to a Guate Amala, meaning love of place. Even if the actual origins of the name Guatemala aren’t quite that simple, it makes for a charming anecdote, as well as a demonstration that the smallest and most simple change in design can have massive repercussions.

This is a frequent pattern in the film, glossing over the more complex aspects of projects that Mau has been involved with, presenting them largely uncritically. While some major commissions came to fruition, others never reached the level of hype with which they were launched. In all fairness, this is more a fault of co-directors Benji and Jono Bergmann than the film’s subject, who seems to have a healthy relationship with failure. Mau has more than a few things to say about the subject.

Some of the most interesting aspects of any design process is the idea of failure and what it can teach you. After Massive Change, a large-scale design exhibition that premiered at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004, Mau had planned another edition entitled Massive Action that would focus on giving people the solutions they needed. As he explains, despite the success of the original project, it failed to provide the necessary tools as well as a path forward to solve the collective problems that the world was and is still facing.

Large vertical banners hang from the ceiling, depicting militaristic images with slogans like “Future Force Warrior” and “Hydrate or Die.”
Despite the success of Massive Change, Mau noted that it failed to chart a clear path forward on how to solve the problems identified in the exhibition. Photo via the online portfolio of Bruce Mau Design.

Song Xiewei, the dean of the CAFA School of Design in China who had seen the original show in Vancouver, contacted Mau wanting to remount Massive Change in its entirety. The idea of a sequel emerged. But a falling out between China and Canada put a kibosh on the project and in the interim, Mau’s health became something of an issue.

But if ever there was a right time for new ideas, that time is now. Like right now.

Many of the things he’s been talking about for decades are only now just coming to enter the broader consciousness. Although the film leaves off in 2020, here’s where things actually have gotten more interesting. After designing and writing more than 200 books, Mau’s most recent publication, launched in 2020, might be the most critical. MAU MC24 contains 24 principles for what he terms "Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work."

Humanity finds itself in a perilous moment. In response, the book boldly states, “The greater the problem, the worse the crisis, the harsher the experience, the bigger the design opportunity.”

A silhouette of Bruce Mau walks away from the camera in a snow covered landscape.
The film wraps up in the year 2020, when Bruce Mau turns his vision for large-scale change on the stuff of his own life. Film still courtesy of the Mau team.

Fact-based optimism has long been Mau’s brand and it’s easy to think it’s merely another glib, off-the-cuff aphorism, but there’s something more radical contained in the concept. It’s the time for big change, different stuff, something much bolder in terms of both scope and implementation.

As he writes in MAU MC24 “Co-operation, connection and the creation of global systems for human development are the great untold story of our age. Because of these systems, the present day is the best time in human history to be alive and working."

The idea of truly transformative change has been circling around, popping up in many varied locations from the recent documentary opus of Adam Curtis to the work of the late great David Graeber. Graeber’s statement, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently,” is echoed in many of Mau’s projects.

As Mau says in the film about the current state of things, “When things are bad and getting worse, people do what makes sense. They behave selfishly. They close the border, they lock the doors. When people see that we are investing in the future, they behave in the opposite way, they come out, they contribute, they want to be in.”

The desire for world-shaping, world-shaking change is the animating spirit that runs beneath the narrative. I didn’t realize my hunger for it. I wanted much more than the film could offer, but it’s an invitation to head off in search of better solutions, bigger ideas and new ways forward.

'Mau' screens at Vancouver’s VIFF Centre from May 20 to 26.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Film

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