At the Parsons Table with Bruce Mau

Bruce Mau is, by any standard, a pretty spectacular optimist. As the driving force behind Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, an enormous, multi-venue exhibition on the intersection of design, technology, culture, science, and civilization, he promoted the airy notion that design can substantially improve the world—and came to the conclusion, he says, that the present time is “probably the best time in human history to be alive.”

Yet Mau’s optimism is grounded in a thoughtful consideration of design’s real-world possibilities—as demonstrated during his conversation with Paul Goldberger at Parsons The New School for Design on December 15. The event was part of the school’s At the Parsons Table series, which invites leading figures in architecture and design to participate in conversations with Goldberger, dean of Parsons and the architecture critic at The New Yorker.

In addition to curating the Massive Change exhibition—which was accompanied by a book of the same title—Mau has written Life Style, a book documenting the creative process at his studio, Bruce Mau Design; collaborated with Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry; and, recently, worked on the design of the ill-fated New York Sports and Convention Center. As Goldberger said in his introduction, “He is, in a technical sense, a graphic designer, but that’s a term that does him no justice. He’s one of the leading figures in design, and in many ways you might call him a design activist—a designer who is actively reinventing the very notion of design.”

Below are excerpts of Goldberger and Mau’s conversation, which touched on the ideas behind Massive Change, the future of the automobile, and how design can save the world.


Paul Goldberger: Both Massive Change and Life Style are less linear stories and narratives than they are extraordinary amalgamations of thoughts, impressions, visual images, and so forth. What I’d like to do to start our conversation is just tell you a few of the things that I was struck by in the book, quote them and ask you to riff on them a bit, see where it takes us. The first is a very simple line, but one that struck me as quite powerful: “For most of us, design is invisible. Until it fails.” What did you mean by that?

Bruce Mau: Well, I think one of the most incredible faculties that we have as humans is an extraordinary capacity to integrate and normalize almost anything. So, we invent things, implement them, distribute them, change the way that we live, and it seems in 24 hours that it’s the way it’s always been. And it really becomes, you know, sort of banal. One of the things, as an effect of looking at the world through the lens of Massive Change, was to see that, in fact, we produce absolutely extraordinary situations every day, but we make them invisible and we go about our lives. But it’s all within a design context that we’ve produced that becomes really almost invisible to us. If you want to understand that, you need only imagine how often you can close your eyes and open them in an environment that isn’t filled with designed things and isn’t itself a designed environment. You realize that almost our entire reality is produced by us. That’s the world that we live in, but we cease to see it, it becomes almost a natural context—until it breaks, until it fails. So that when a plane crashes, suddenly you’re aware of the kind of force that’s involved in taking a big group of people and putting them in the air. You become conscious of it for a moment, and then it passes pretty quickly and you go back to—

Goldberger: Our usual numbed existence.

Mau: Yeah, a kind of unconscious state. [But] in some ways the holy grail of design is invisibility. If you can raise it to the plateau of banality, you’ve really done something.

Goldberger: So the goal of the designer is to produce banality?

Mau: Take the car, for instance. The car is so easy; it’s almost effortless to move around in it. That’s because it’s a very, very sophisticated piece of design—not only the car, but the entire system that integrates the delivery of that capacity.

Goldberger: I want to play for a moment with this whole issue of consciousness. Because I’m beginning to think that what you’re saying is that the quality of design is in inverse proportion to how conscious we are of it. Is that the case?

Mau: Well, it’s only one aspect of it.

Goldberger: I think that there are two ways for design to sort of pull us out of our normal stupor. One of them is to frustrate us—and you were talking about the frustration of design that doesn’t work very well. But another is to uplift and create a sort of awesome experience of something that is stunningly beautiful and different from what we might have expected. And so surely design still has that latter purpose from time to time.

Mau: It does, but it is a marginal activity. I mean, you need only go to Rotterdam to see what happens when it’s not. Because suddenly every building is attractive, and it’s terrible. You end up with a kind of screaming ordinary, which is not very pleasant.

Goldberger: Another line of yours that struck me was: “The world has not embraced secular democracy, but it has embraced traffic. The radical success of the car has brought about its failure. Personal mobility projects are underway worldwide to deliver maximum freedom with minimal impact.”

Mau: What you have is this kind of universal embrace of the car, to the point where Dean Kamen [creator of the Segway] told us, the average speed of a car today is eight miles an hour. And we use 43 percent of our fuel while we’re sitting still. So we’ve made this thing, it’s wildly successful—but because of this success, it causes a bunch of traffic.

The idea of moving independently—the idea of getting in the vehicle and going where you want to go—is an American idea, and it’s a fantastic idea that’s been embraced all over the world. Now what’s happening is that we’re inventing a thousand different ways of doing that—different models, different concepts—and it’s like a Darwinian field, where there will be thousands of those things invented, most of which will die off because they don’t find a successful environment to support them. But some of them will eventually stick.

Goldberger: How come Dean Kamen hasn’t done better with the Segway?

Mau: Because he has terrible marketing. Actually, that’s a fact—he has an incredible device. I think one of the most surprising things for me in Massive Change was the realization that it’s not about one thing. I think we’re still very much fixated on the singular. We’re fixated on singular authorship, a singular aesthetic, the new thing. In fact, what we saw was really its opposite, which is an incredible field of plural development.

When you’re looking at [the Segway], it’s like looking at the motorcar for the first time. It’s not like a new design of the car, it’s like a new category of movement. I mean, what he desperately needs is for someone to pimp that ride—to make it cool, and to integrate it into the culture.

Goldberger: It seems to me that the lessons of Massive Change as you see it are that, first, everything is designed in one way or another, and that design may actually save the world, or play a role in saving the world.

Mau: That we have the possibility of doing that. I mean, I think when we use the term “save the world,” people think of it, they still have an image of design as fancy objects. That’s the kind of mass understanding of design. When you think of it that way and you say that’s going to save the world, it’s totally laughable, because of course that’s not going to save the world. But when you say the ability to collectively work on controlling outcomes in the interests of most people—that’s a design project. We have the capacity to do that, and we’ve never produced a generation of people with more capacity than the ones who are sitting in the room today.

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