How Bruce Mau changed design and the world
Who is Bruce Mau?
It seems like a simple question.
Designer, thinker, Sudbury boy, father, husband, visionary, iconoclast, optimist – it turns out there are many different definitions.
Like the documentary portrait mau precise, man contains multitudes, and as such provokes an equally varied reaction. Some people love it, and others aren’t so sure.
Whatever his shortcomings, Mau has an unwavering determination to keep going, to try new things, and to think extremely big. The film offers a wealth of fresh ideas that waft off the screen like a cool breeze as Mau walks around, often playing with a Slinky, dressed in obligatory black and laughing like a schoolboy. Anyone who can rise from the depths of Sudbury, Ontario and then become one of the most prominent designers of the day is probably capable of anything. So, beneath all the trappings of TED-talk and pithy statements about designing in perpetuity lies something deeply needed. Like saving the world!
But let’s start at the beginning with the man’s origin story. Raised in the coldest, shittiest corner of Sudbury by abusive alcoholic parents, young Mau grew up in a home 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 television that he first saw images of Expo 67 in Montreal. He immediately gravitated to the idea of places bigger and infinitely more interesting than Sudbury, a landscape so bleak that NASA sent its astronauts to train there because it most closely resembled the surface of the moon.
It was this kind of deep deprivation that forged Mau’s determination to get the hell out of Sudbury and see the world. It’s a classic tale, albeit with a chill Canadian edge. As he says in the film, at 17 he had never been anywhere and had never even heard of the term “design”, but he went to art school in Toronto and never never looked back.
From that moment, a meteoric rise ensued. After leaving art school, Mau worked with a corporate design firm in the UK and later started her own business. It was an early collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas that propelled him to notoriety and glory. The duo created the design bible entitled S, M, L, XLa brick of a pound so heavy you could use it as a murder weapon.
Within its 1,376 pages were “Essays, manifestos, journals, fairy tales, travelogues” – ephemera of all kinds designed (heh…) to remake, reexamine, reimagine almost anything environmental. designed and built. As described in a breathless jacket copy, the tome “illuminates the conditions of architecture today – its splendours and its miseries – by exploring and revealing the corrosive impact of politics, context, ‘economy, globalization – the world’.
In other words, think big.
The success of S, M, L, XL caught the attention of other celebrities as well as institutions. Soon, architect Frank Gehry and the Museum of Modern Art came to court. MoMA hired Mau to redesign its communications identity as part of an extensive rebranding process, the end result of which was that he advised them not to change anything. Like his artist friend James Lahey says in the movie, “Now how many people could resist putting their fucking name on that wordmark and changing it?”
Although Mau may have started out as a graphic designer, things loosened up a bit regarding his actual work as he progressed. It’s not always obvious in the movie what he does in life, maybe because he does so many things.
He makes books, designs installations, re-imagines the future, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Some of the big projects Mau has been involved in – whether it’s redesigning Mecca, preventing people from being trampled to death on the pilgrimage route, or renaming the whole country of Guatemala – are incredibly large-scale. . Mecca’s revamp was designed to last a thousand years, but things don’t always go exactly as planned.
Guatemala is a good example. Initially contacted by the country’s Minister of Education, Mau was offered the opportunity to reframe the whole concept of a nation, more than 36 years of violent and bloody civil war had shattered people’s ability to dream and destroyed their faith in the future. . In an effort to awaken a sense of possibility, a name change has been proposed.
As the Mau explains in the film, the word Guatemala was originally used by the indigenous people, but when the Spanish colonizers arrived they decided to call it Guatemala, sick meaning bad. As Mau jokes, “How would you like to wake up every day in the United States of Bad Place?”
To change this, the designer stuck an “a” right in the center, changing it to a Guate Amala, meaning love of place. Even though the actual origins of the name Guatemala aren’t that simple, it makes for a charming anecdote, as well as a demonstration that the smallest, simplest design change can have massive repercussions.
It’s a frequent pattern in film, glossing over the more complex aspects of the projects Mau was involved in, presenting them largely uncritically. While some major orders materialized, others never reached the level of hype with which they were launched. In all honesty, that’s more the fault of co-directors Benji and Jono Bergmann than the subject of the film, which seems to have a healthy relationship with failure. Mau has more than a few things to say on the subject.
The idea of failure and what it can teach you is one of the most interesting aspects of any design process. After Massive changea large-scale design exhibition that premiered at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004, Mau had planned another edition titled Massive action that would aim to give people the solutions they needed. As he explains, despite the success of the initial project, it did not provide the necessary tools or a path forward to solve the collective problems that the world was and still is facing.
Song Xiewei, the dean of the CAFA School of Design in China who had seen the original show in Vancouver, contacted Mau to reassemble Massive change in its entirety. The idea of a sequel emerged. But a falling out between China and Canada put the kibosh on the project and in the meantime Mau’s health became a problem.
But if there ever was a good time for new ideas, it’s now. Like now.
Many of the things he’s been talking about for decades are only now beginning to enter the broader consciousness. Although the movie ends in 2020, here’s where things got more interesting. After designing and writing more than 200 books, Mau’s most recent publication, launched in 2020, might be his most critical. MAU MC24 contains 24 principles for what he calls Design a 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 greater the crisis, the harsher the experience, the greater the opportunity for conception.”
Fact-based optimism has long been Mau’s preserve brand and it’s easy to think that this is just another improvised aphorism, but there is something more radical contained in the concept. It’s a time for big changes, for different things, for something much bolder in scope and implementation.
As he writes in MAU MC24 “Cooperation, connection and the creation of global systems for human development is the great untold story of our time. Thanks to these systems, the present day is the best time in human history to live and work.”
The idea of truly transformative change has been circulating, appearing in many varied places, from Adam Curtis’ recent documentary opus to the work of the late great David Graeber. Graeber’s statement “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it’s something we do and we might as well do differently” finds echo in many of Mau’s projects.
As Mau says in the movie about the current state of affairs: “When things get bad and bad, 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 the opposite way, they go out, they contribute, they want to be part of it.
The desire for change that shapes and disrupts the world is the spirit that drives the story. I didn’t realize my hunger for it. I wanted more than the film could offer, but it’s an invitation to go in search of better solutions, bigger ideas and new ways forward.
Mau Screens at Vancouver’s VIFF Center May 20 to 26.