Redesigning the Anthropocene

An interview with Bruce Mau about design, changing, and re-imagining the world.

32 mins read

Bruce Mau is a designer, educator and, above all, a visionary thinker. While in his mid-20s, he was one of the founders of Zone Books, which has become one of the key publishers in the world on critical theory, design, and philosophy. That’s when I first met him: he designed a brilliant window display for Zone 1 and 3 for Pages, the bookshop I owned in Toronto.

Mau impressed me with his talent, charm and almost gleeful enthusiasm for the art he was creating and the writer/thinkers he published. Canadians and international taste makers quickly embraced Mau. Over the years, he went from strength to strength, creating his own design studio and, while still quite young, working with Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, urbanist and theorist. Their collaborative book S, M, L, XL proved to be an instant hit, a must-read on theory, architecture, design and philosophy, which was devoured by the intelligentsia in the 1990s.

Since that time, Mau has worked with the esteemed architect Frank Gehry and many others while working on diverse projects from redesigning Prada to creating, with the Seattle Public Library, a new paradigm for how such an institution can thrive in the digital age. He’s gone from Bruce Mau Design to Massive Change Network. Mau wants to redesign the world—or, at least, to inspire the rethinking of the Anthropocene so that humanity won’t be destroyed it.

Filmmakers Benjamin and Jono Bergmann have made a film on Bruce Mau’s life and career, which premiered at Hot Docs. Mau will, no doubt, have a life in theatrical and digital distribution in the years to come. POV’s editor Marc Glassman spoke with Bruce Mau about his life and career during Hot Docs.

POV: Marc Glassman
Mau: Bruce Mau

 

POV: How has it been for you, over the last four years, living and working in the United States, a country that has been doing the opposite of the kind of positivism that you’ve been embracing throughout your career?

Mau: I have to take the long view and look at the big picture. The fact that that kind of numbskullery was happening did not negate the fact that so many people are working on the right things. The vast majority of people actually believe in the possibility of humankind, and are not doing the destructive things that we’ve seen here for the last four years.

I think, in some ways, that political reaction we’ve seen is the last gasp of a system that is not for the future. So you can see why people are holding on to things as they change. When we did Massive Change, one of the design economies that we looked at was the movement economy. I thought there would be a camp of people arguing against sustainability. They weren’t. Now, there’s a group of people who intend to make a lot of money being the last guys selling certain kinds of products, but they don’t think it’s the future.

POV: Let’s go back to the past. The film does give us a chance to look at what you’ve been doing over the years. When I first met you, Zone Books was your project and you were very excited about it. Was book design your first love?

Mau: Absolutely. In my studio, I’ve done over 260 books. It’s a lot. But it’s one of those things where you work on them one at a time. I like to say to my daughters, you can’t win if you’re not in the game. I’ve just been in the game for a long time.

I didn’t really get an education, and so the books are what I learned. Each one of them was very intimate. I’ve had a really wonderful life, studying artists, philosophers, writers while designing Zone Books. I can’t imagine a better life.

The books are really sacred to me. I went through a period where I wasn’t doing very many, but it’s really come back in a big way. I’m doing several really exciting book projects right now.

POV: What are you doing now?

Mau: I’m working with my friend, Julio Ottino, who’s the Dean of Engineering at Northwestern. We’re doing a book called The Nexus, which is on the intersection of art, technology, and science. We’ve been working on it for 13 years.

We’re finally getting it done and MIT is going to publish it. It’s really an exciting thing. And we just launched a new book that Phaidon published, that I did with David Rockwell, called Drama. It’s on the idea of the theatre and what we can learn from it and apply to architecture.

What can we learn from, especially in Rockwell’s work, an obsession with the audience? What if we put the audience as a central concern for the design process? It is weirdly absent from architecture.

POV: Do you find with book design that it is, on one level, abstract like architectural theory, but, at the same time, there is a product that can absolutely be considered beautiful? In designing do you consider that you’re creating an interface between abstraction and reality?

Mau: I think one of the reasons that the work that I’ve done has been as successful as it has been is that I have a methodology that comes from books. The way I think of them is that it’s about the controlled release of information in time. It’s about putting ideas in sequence. And that methodology of actually clarifying the sequence, which is essentially what a book does, turns out to be very powerful for solving problems.

Being able to take a body of information and ideas and put them in an order that becomes a story. If you think about it, all the work that I’ve done has been playing with that problem and exploring what can be done with it.

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POV: 30 years ago, if you said you’re a designer and a storyteller, people would look at you and think, “What do you mean?” Now I think people understand that. Would you say that your work in design is actually a process of creating stories?

Mau: For me, the thing that I fell in love with was ideas and images, and what happens when they come together. That has been a lifelong passion and exploration and there’s no end in sight, as far as I can see. I haven’t exhausted that work.

You know, Marshall McLuhan said that when a technology you use loses its utility, it becomes an art form. I think that’s what’s really happened. I came along just as the book was changing… With digital, you no longer need the book in a physical form.

But we still want it. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, and it’s exciting. It’s enlightening. It’s all the things that art can be. And I realized recently that that’s really the best way to look at what I’ve been doing in book design. At this point, it’s an art practice.

POV: By that, I don’t think you mean just necessarily the books. I assume you mean that with design—as an abstraction, as a philosophy. Would that be true?

Mau: Yeah, for sure. Obviously, I get paid to do difficult problems. But I use the necessity of working in order to explore things for myself, in a very selfish way.

POV: (Laughs). You can be good for the people while being good for yourself.

Mau: Yeah, I think it’s the best thing I can do, actually.

POV: Rem Koolhaas is an important figure in the documentary, but I’d like to hear more about what that relationship was like for you, and what it meant working with him for a long time.

Mau: Yeah, it really was a long time and the book itself—S,M,L,XL—was very intensive work for five years. We traveled together and went to all the projects covered in the book.

I’m probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet on that period of Rem’s work. It was an incredible experience. He’s one of the best collaborators that I’ve ever met. He can get people to do stuff that they don’t know they can do. He can lift people up in a magical way and make things come to life. I’ve never seen anybody else as talented as he is in that regard.

For me, there was a third person in that diagram, a woman named Jennifer Sigler. Jennifer was the editor, but she was so much more than that, she really was also a designer. She has a design mind. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Rem really changed my way of thinking. One of the things he did–and I’ve been very fortunate to have a few of these characters in my work and in my life–is that he asked me to do things I had no idea how to do.

POV: Did he make you think about design in different ways?

 

Mau: He asked me to help figure out the future of the Seattle Public Library could be imagined in the home of Microsoft. What’s the future of the library when you can have infinite amounts of content in an infinitely small space? Why, then, do we need a building?

It was a really good question, and the answer in the end is social. It’s not about the books. It’s about the ideas and the cornerstone of democracy they represent. The leader of the library said, “If we don’t have access to knowledge for everyone, then we don’t have democracy.” And the library is a place where that comes true. It really is an important idea. So, Rem’s invitation to me to work on other things and expand my own collaborative practice was really important in my work.

POV: It makes sense, doesn’t it, that the only way to really learn is to be thrust into something new. I can see with the library what that learning experience is, because the building no longer has to simply be the place that is the repository of knowledge. It can also serve other uses.

Mau: Yeah, it was very exciting. I also worked with Rem on Prada, on the strategy of it, and it was mind blowing. I had a great time.

POV: What did you learn? When you went into a library in the pre-digital age, you weren’t supposed to talk to each other. Now it’s the opposite. People are supposed to talk to each other in the library. Yeah. I wonder about Prada. Tell me about that – how does that work? How do you learn from that?

Mau: In that case, it was about wondering what the future of luxury is. What does luxury look like, if it becomes ubiquitous? If I can get Prada in Toronto, and Mississauga, actually, why is it special? It really was a puzzle to figure out how luxury behaves and performs in this new kind of economy.

We developed what we called the epicentre strategy. We would make places that were super specific, and not available anywhere else. If you went to the New York Prada store, nowhere else in the world had that experience. That was part of the design. The strategy is that it wasn’t to be replicated. So when they made epicentres in other places, those were equally unique. The Tokyo epicenter is nothing like the New York epicenter.

POV: Are you arguing that it’s actually the specificity of the space that has to become the important element here? Even within a vast idea—sophistication, for example, or dispensing knowledge—you still have to go right down to the specifics to determine what the environment should be.

Mau: And you have to think about what you want, right? I want to know that I’m in the right place, and there’s something unique here. I don’t care that it’s a Prada product as much as I care that I’m entering into a creative mind, a creative force. And I’m going to be inspired. It’s going to move me and I’m going to walk out thinking, “Wow, that’s awesome.” That kind of feeling needs to be specific. The moment it becomes generic it sinks in energy and you’re not getting that feeling.

POV: Another key figure in the development of your life and career is also covered in the documentary, Frank Gehry.

Mau: Frank was very important to me. Not only as a designer but as a man. He was, in some ways, the kind of father that didn’t show up in my life. He was older than me, significantly older, and he was very successful. Already, when I was working with him, he was one of the most famous architects in the world. And Frank took me aside, and said, “Very few people I know have survived what’s happening to you.” Because I was getting a lot of recognition, quite young.

He gave me a very good piece of advice, “Bruce, focus on the work, because the work doesn’t care about you.” It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t know if you’re famous, it doesn’t really give a shit about you. It’s just the work, and it will keep you grounded in the problems that you should be working on. Work is long and buzz is short. Focus on the long, and don’t get sucked up by this other stuff.

It was such a great piece of advice, and I’ve tried my whole life to really focus on that way of thinking and that way of working. To really try to do the work. I find that when I’m in the work, I’m kind of unstoppable.

It’s so interesting to me, and it’s so inspirational, that I can just summon resources. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem possible. When other people stop, I just keep going. And that has been very rewarding. You know, that’s why there’s 260 books now.

I don’t know if it comes across in the film, but I learned that I never really stop working on the projects that I start. I’m still working on Zone. I’m still working with Sanford Kwinter. He’s really one of the great minds I’ve ever encountered. That collaboration started over 30 years ago and hasn’t finished yet.

In fact, one of the things that happened in the film that was so exciting, was that when I finally saw it, I realized, “Oh my god, that Massive Action project. It’s so exciting. I gotta do it.” I called Benji and Jono [Bergmann, the directors], and said, “I really inspired myself.” I thought they did a great job [as filmmakers]. We’re going to figure out how to do it, I just don’t know how yet. The fight with Canada and China stopped the project.

POV: Do you think you’ll end up having to take it somewhere else?

Mau: We’re gonna figure out how to do it. I think there’s a lot of different ways you could do it. We just don’t know yet. I can’t let this stop.

POV: I was wondering about how much you were participating in this film. Because it hit me that the film, as you know, takes a very interesting psychological turn. It places you back in your childhood home and makes you confront your complicated relationships with your parents. How do you feel about what could have just simply been a celebratory doc, but decides to ask, what makes Bruce tick?

Mau: It was a very weird experience. I am the subject of their work, but not a participant in their work. So, it was really up to them. I was willing to participate and to try to be as honest as possible about my failings and successes. I thought they did a good job, it was pretty compelling what they were able to put together.

I think the story is pretty accurate. Inevitably, there’s some things that I wish were in it; [for example,] important people that are part of my life that don’t show up. But the film is not comprehensive, it’s an idea. I think it’s important to actually acknowledge the failings and challenges I have faced. I’ve had plenty of criticism, so it’s easy for them to do it. [laughs] Actually, it’s not, it’s damn hard to do it!

POV: They offer a particular take on who they think you are. Do you buy it?

Mau: I think it’s pretty close. The reality of anyone who is doing creative work is that you’re constantly putting yourself out. I talked to Frank [Gehry] one time about his shrink. He’d been working with him for 40 years. I said, ‘Frank, what can you possibly still be talking about after all that time?’ And he said, ‘We talk about how people see me.’ The moment he said that, I said, ‘Okay, I get it.’ Because if you think about what a creative life is, you’re constantly putting your heart out on the table for people to kick around.

That’s the life that we’ve chosen, the business we’ve chosen, as they say in The Godfather. But it means that you’re constantly in this machine, this mixture of positive and negative and heartfelt and critical. I’ve tried to, in my work and in my life, to–as you said earlier–sustain a positive, optimistic outlook. I think it’s my responsibility. It’s not always easy. It’s not always obvious or immediate to get to, but I’ve tried to maintain that. And I thought Benji and Jono did a pretty good job of reflecting that, and it’s more complicated than it appears at first.

POV: I love this quote: “Massive change is not about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world.” I mean, it’s not as if this is a surprise from the guy who was doing Zone 35 years ago. But it is in a way a difference. You’ve gone from that, to having your own studio, to Bruce Mau Design, to creating the Massive Change Network. I’m wondering if you can reflect on the narrative and the idea of Bruce Mau. Where has Bruce Mau gone over this period of time? Can you talk about redesigning Bruce Mau?

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Mau: [laughs] That’s a good one. It’s interesting, because I think what has happened for me, and the books are really important landmarks in that trajectory, is that what I realized I needed to do for my work was to understand the context. I needed to understand the world in order to know where the opportunity was for me to contribute. So I developed a practice of what I now call context projects, really mapping the terrain in new ways. And that’s what S,M,L,XL did, that’s what Zone did in a big way, and Life Style and Massive Change.

Those projects really kind of mapped out new terrains. And through that process, I was following my exploratory impulse—my curiosity, my passion—to try to understand things and explore them, and create new things. There were times when it really was at odds with my business. The reason we made Massive Change Network was that I couldn’t get my studio to really understand where I was going.

I wanted to do this new thing that I called Massive Change. And I had partners and employees, and I realized they were never going to do it with me: they really couldn’t. And that’s why I sold Bruce Mau Design and set up Massive Change Network to do what we’re doing now and use design in the most urgent challenges that we face. And I think they were right in the sense that it’s a really hard business. It’s hard to figure out how to do these things, it’s hard to make money, it’s not the easiest thing to do. Whereas the design business is actually pretty straightforward.

So what we’ve been able to do is to create new space. I think Massive Change did that in a big way, it introduced design economies, and a new way of understanding the potential of design. MC24 does that again—it really develops the core methodology of that way of thinking. That’s been quite a wonderful, if sometimes harrowing, adventure.

POV: Are you really trying to redesign the world—or parts of it?

Mau: What’s happening now that’s really exciting is that people are seeing in MC24—and I think the film will actually advance this a lot if it gets distributed—that there is actually a method for dealing with these massive problems. There is a way of doing it. For me, the core concept is empathy. If you think about the problems, the stack of heavy crises we’re dealing with right now–a racism crisis, a climate crisis, a governance crisis–these are all layered on top of one another.

The common denominator is actually having empathy for other forms of life, and putting life at the center, not humans. [It’s about] being able to actually relate to these conditions, relate to other people, other living things, other inanimate things that have their own life force, and really bring them together in a new way that is respectful and honourable and takes it to a new place. That has been one of the most incredible intellectual and spiritual and emotional adventures of my life.

POV: Would you say it’s reimagining the Anthropocene?

Mau: Absolutely. We need to get to a cosmology that puts life at the center, not humans. As my friend, Julio, who I’m working with on Nexus, says, you can’t solve climate change with human-centered design.

Watch the Hot Docs Big Ideas conversation with Bruce Mau here.

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

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