Mau Review: A Book as Good as Its Cover

Portrait of local hero and designer, Bruce Mau

6 mins read

(USA, 77 min.)
Dir. Jono Bergmann and Benji Bergmann


Bruce Mau is a local hero, so it’s sad but no surprise that the visionary designer now lives in Chicago and is likely more famous in the U.S. than Canada. Mau is the subject of a stylish eponymous feature documentary, which explores his family roots in Northern Ontario and brilliant early career in Toronto, but ultimately focuses on his significance globally. Which is only fair—but at least in Toronto and Canada, it is appropriate to hail him as an Ontario boy, like his colleague Frank Gehry, who has gone on to be an important figure throughout the world. And to endorse with some qualifications, a film on his controversial design philosophy.

Full disclosure: I knew Bruce quite well when he was starting out in 1980s’ Toronto as part of the arts and cultural scene. He was brash, confident, funny and filled with big ideas and a great smile—wonderful company whom you would want to cheer on to great success. Bruce first established himself as a book designer then. He wasn’t just a good designer, he was a great one, instantly. His first major success was creating the look of Zone Books, a major publisher of cultural theory, which is still going strong over 35 years later. The Mau design, still kept up, makes the books elegant and simple, easy to read, gorgeous on the page, with superb covers that are truly artistic.

He established a design firm and was soon working with the Art Gallery of Ontario on a new look and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, a park in Toronto—and, well, lots more. He achieved global prominence with the publication of the massive book on architecture, design and cities S, M, L, XL in 1995. A collaboration with the esteemed architect Rem Koolhaas, the book combined everything from fairy tales to complicated illustrations to manifestos and was packaged so beautifully that it became an absolute favourite world-wide for taste-makers and progressive thinkers in political and cultural spheres.

Since that time, Mau’s work hasn’t been just about creating a great end product. It’s about process and thought—and to be fair, he’s always felt that way. But that’s where things can get a bit ephemeral. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what success is like in a Bruce Mau project because it’s so much about philosophy with not necessarily that much specifically being achieved. For example, he’s worked with Disney and Coca Cola on revising how they present themselves to the world; things may have changed somewhat but not necessarily in the utopian manner Mau may have wished it to be. Coca Cola has certainly reduced its production of plastic bottles but has its “live positively” concept really changed much, even within the corporation?

The film, which the Bergmann brothers have made, Mau, advocates for the designer’s visionary attitudes, showing his process in a favourable light. That’s understandable, of course. They’re attracted to Mau as a sincere and passionate speaker and spend most of the film’s time on his projects—not just the ones already mentioned but also his attempts to brand Guatemala and Denmark as global entities, an ongoing plan to redesign Mecca for the next 1000 years and a very successful re-thinking of the Seattle Public Library, which actually affected the redesign in many such institutions around the world. They’re clear that one of the biggest projects, the controversial Massive Change traveling exhibit, hasn’t effectively communicated its message to the world, although it’s really entertaining to experience.

The big intervention in Mau—and Bruce admitted to me that he was a bit surprised by it—was to have the designer return to his birthplace on the outskirts of Sudbury, ostensibly to confront the demons of his past—parents who didn’t support him and a childhood filled with people who could never understand him. It’s all quite psychological and it may make sense, but Mau does seem quite well adjusted—happily married with a loving family. At any rate, it marks the film as being unique, and not mere hagiography. And it shows Bruce Mau, even at 60, and very successful, as being a good sport, collaborating on a film that couldn’t have happened without him.

Should people see Mau? As I wrote up top, he’s a local hero. You ought to support a film based on his life and artistic good times, at least by seeing it.

Mau opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 20.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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