Change Is Good

“There was no way in a million years that I would have come into work one day and said, ‘You know what? Panel fabrics baby, that’s where it’s at,’” Bruce Mau says, doing a little jig and sticking out his palm. There are at least a dozen empty chairs in the library of Bruce Mau Design, but we have both been standing for nearly 45 minutes while Mau paces back and forth playing with a Slinky. He is in constant motion. I am here to learn about the panel fabrics—used on office cubicles—that Mau has designed for the contract textile company Maharam. But for Mau, talking about panel fabrics means talking about everything else: the human genome, the production of nature, the invention of peacekeeping. He is big and entrancing, like Bill Clinton. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We should have new flatware.’ It’s kind of a natural place for design to be,” he says. “I’m much more interested in all the other places—like panel fabrics—where people wouldn’t think, ‘That’s a great place to design.’”

Introduced in June at NeoCon, the trade fair for the contract furnishings industry, the fabrics Mau and his studio designed for Maharam are a revolution for an industry mired in beige. Installations of office cubicles typically project no sense of depth; they are a fractured sea of flat panels. Mau’s big idea is deceptively simple: changing the scale of patterns on the cubicle walls creates depth. The cubicle becomes cubic. “We approached it from the very first sketches as something that was three-dimensional, even knowing that ultimately it would be a two-dimensional product,” Mau says. “The interesting thing about it is the social space—what you end up with environmentally.” Herman Miller was so attracted by Mau’s insight that the firm used the fabric on its Ethospace, Prospects, and Resolve office system displays in the showroom at NeoCon. “It’s very difficult to find panel fabric that’s intriguing,” says Wayne Susag, who designed the display for Herman Miller. “We were really looking for something that shifted in scale enough so that from across a room you can still appreciate and experience the patterns.”

Almost all designers say they want to change the world, but very few embrace mundane reality—like panel fabrics—to do it. But rather than seeing clients and their demands as iron chains to drag toward design bliss, Mau crowns them collaborators and places them at the center of his practice. “I have a real fascination with reality,” he says. “I’m much more interested in intervening in a way that is going to affect more people than in doing teapots that people who already basically agree with me are going to say is a nice design.”

Accordingly there are no designer teapots at the Toronto studio of Bruce Mau Design. Instead the place exudes an energetic sense of creative disarray. There’s a bike parked outside the conference room and a golden retriever trotting around. Groups of designers face each other across worktables littered with art books and abstract sketches, while constellations of Apple logos glow from the backs of beat-up PowerBooks. The whole place seems to occupy a strange limbo between academia’s earnest dreaminess and the design industry’s slick commercialism. When I first arrive Mau’s assistant, Quinn Shephard, invites me to peruse the library, where I stumble upon a shelf full of French philosophy and a section labeled “The Sixties.”

The people at Bruce Mau Design may capitalize on their playfulness, but they also play with their capital—a fitting stance for a studio that has managed to morph jobs designing books of Continental philosophy into work that includes corporate logos and museum branding campaigns. Beginning in the 1980s Mau’s highly conceptual work for MIT’s Zone Books imprint reimagined the role of graphic designer with designs that were deeply inspired by the texts themselves—a move that for Mau seemed a natural evolution of the intertwining of form and content. In 1995 he tightened that knot, when he received front-cover billing with Rem Koolhaas on S,M,L,XL. And while it may have brought a new sense of responsibility to Mau’s role as a graphic designer, it only encouraged his sense of play. His own 2000 manifesto, Life Style, brims with jokes both visual and textual, right down to the option of purchasing the book in ten different colors.

So when Michael Maharam, the 43-year-old principal and co-owner of Maharam, in New York, called to ask Mau if he would design a panel fabric, he responded, “What’s a panel fabric?” The question became the mantra for this project, a statement of naiveté and the daring that results from it—both on Mau’s part for asking the question and on Maharam’s part for seeking the freshness of ignorance. But in Mau’s world it is also a statement of purpose: “What’s a panel fabric?” is not only a practical question but a platonic one, a logical lead-in to “What’s an office?” Or, more likely, “What’s work?” It’s all part of what Mau calls “the context in which we are working”—the variety of projects that sustain his studio, both fiscally and creatively. As Mary Murphy, design director at Maharam, sees it, “Bruce has lots of pots on the stove, and they’re all bubbling and they’re all boiling. But they’re connected. It’s like he’s cooking one big stew somewhere.”

Both Murphy and her boss, Michael Maharam, are under Mau’s spell. At Maharam, the faith in design runs deep. In 1997 Michael joined his brother Stephen as a principal of the textile company founded by their great-grandfather Louis Maharam in 1902. “The trick,” he says, “was transforming what was a rather dusty old brand into a dynamic new business philosophy.” Maharam became, as we now say, “design-driven.” The firm acquired the rights to fabric patterns by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Arne Jacobsen, and Alexander Girard, and relaunched them in a line called Textiles of the Twentieth Century. The success of the line established Maharam as the design leader in the industry. “But then we started getting a little self-conscious about the fact that we were doing all this work with dead designers,” Murphy says, so they began to seek out people who would be “the next icons of the century.” Their collaboration with the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius earned massive critical praise, encouraging Maharam to partner with other designers. Panel fabrics in particular were in desperate need of intervention. “It’s the most challenged category we deal with because it is so constrained,” Maharam says.

Why choose Mau? As Maharam lays it out, “If the question is panel fabric, and that is a two-dimensional question—more so than other textiles, which have greater dimension—then the answer is graphic design. And if the environment is labyrinthine, then the answer is somebody who works in designing high-stimulus environments like museums. And Bruce is that person.”

Interior architects choose panel fabrics after they’ve chosen an office system—and once they’ve chosen them they last forever. As a result, Maharam doesn’t sell much in leopard skin. In fact, they don’t sell much at all. Office-system makers—like Herman Miller, Steelcase, or Teknion—mainly offer their own fabrics, mainly in beige. An interior designer will come to Maharam only for something a cut above—but not that far above, or else they probably wouldn’t be installing cubicles in the first place. In the niche that results, the stakes are high: a cubicle might take 15 yards of fabric, compared to a single yard for a chair. For an installation of 100 to 200 workstations, the yardage can quickly climb into the thousands. The technical requirements are similarly huge—among other things, it can’t catch on fire, sag, or clash. As a result, “typically what has happened is that by the time everybody’s met the requirements, you end up with pabulum,” Murphy says. “It’s so boring and boiled down.”

But Maharam began by giving Mau complete freedom—“Otherwise, what’s the point?” Murphy asks. She recalls that the first time they visited Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, “Michael started to say something about, ‘Well, gee, we should send Bruce all of our existing panel fabrics and our competitors’ samples so we can give him an idea.’ But I said, ‘No, absolutely not. I don’t want him to see what’s out there because I don’t want him to be tainted in any way. I want him to not have any blinders on, to just be able to brainstorm and do whatever he wants to do.’”

Bruce Mau Design took that freedom seriously—as the firm always does. “We’re like wild animals to them,” Mau says. The idea of scale came up right from the first brainstorming sessions between Mau and the in-house team of four designers who worked on the panel fabrics. As Anita Matusevics, the team’s leader, explains, “We were realizing this relationship between these natural images and abstract patterns, so we started to look at galactic and microscopic scales, and collected a lot of images, like close-ups of fibers and molecules and computer chips. Then we were looking at superhuge-scale images—the universe, structures, cities, highway systems—and creating patterns out of them. But when they became more and more abstract, we started to look at them in terms of scale and pattern and figure and ground—as more classical and more formal.” The same team (which also includes Sara Weinstein Kohn, Donald Mak, and Maris Mezulis) had been working on patterns of glass etchings for the Frank Gehry—designed Stata Center at MIT and had been playing with blurring and pixelating graphics for the Roots flagship store in Toronto. Both became inspirations, along with a book on the history of form-making edited by György Kepes, which they found in the studio library. “We were trying to figure out ways of creating families of patterns,” Matusevics says.

The range of influences is dizzying but not unusual. On my first visit to the studio, Shephard arranged a tour of current work. Stopping at each team’s work area, I began to understand why Mau bristles at the title of graphic designer. These days the 43 employees of Bruce Mau Design (a group that didn’t include any trained graphic designers until a year ago) work on book design, identity, branding, signage, exhibition design, art installations, parks, and an unclassifiable host of special projects with artists, architects, institutions, and corporations including Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Knoll, Gagosian Gallery, Roots, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Netherlands Architecture Institute—a list not so much blue-chip as stratospheric. And every project exceeds the bounds of the normal: at the Gehry-designed Bridge of Life Museum, in Panama City, the studio is helping shape the museum’s content as well as the exhibition design; the marketing and communications material for the Roppongi Hills development in Tokyo also involved a book, which the studio not only designed but coauthored; the graphics, signage, and wayfinding for the Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library was preceded by an “investigation” into what a contemporary library is; and the artist monographs the studio churns out monthly for Gagosian Gallery all use an exclusive custom-designed font called Gogo.

Clearly the people at Bruce Mau Design do not carry the title “designer” lightly. The studio—as it is unfailingly called—is fully steeped in a project called Massive Change, a sort of theory of everything as seen through the lens of design. The output is multidisciplinary: a new book for Phaidon, an exhibition next summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery, public events, an online forum, and a television project. The details are still messy. “It really is like a pixelated image, where you can see there’s something in there, but we’re still waiting for the downloads that will increase the clarity,” Mau says. Yet the thesis (he calls it “our position”) is clear. Still playing with his Slinky, Mau wades in slowly, offering a few caveats and choosing his words carefully: “We used to think of design as a kind of subset of the cultural project, and what has happened over the last century—and especially over the last fifty years—is that the real project that has emerged is design itself.”

“Design,” Mau says, catching the Slinky and slowing his speech, “is the capacity to produce outcomes and to control nature in our environment for the welfare of all.” It is the kind of grand statement that designers make all the time, but Mau manages to make sound utterly sincere, even probable. He is not so much preaching the über-Modernist belief in the ability of design to change the world but rather acknowledging that the changes in the world—particularly advances in technology—are opening up the possibilities for design, from human cloning to water purification. “Where once design was subject to nature, now nature is actually subject to design. And that is a change in the order of things, a really significant change,” Mau says, suppressing a giggle. “Hence the title.”

Massive Change wafts through the whole studio, finding its way into even the most corporate work, like the panel fabrics. But it undoubtedly achieves its greatest fervor among the seven full-time students of Bruce Mau Design’s aptly named in-house school, the Institute Without Boundaries, who have been hard at work on the bulk of the project’s research. While this is the school’s first year in operation, it is easy to see that Bruce Mau U., in some form or another, has been in session for years. As Greg Van Alstyne, the school’s leader explains, “The idea of the school came when the studio was looking for a vehicle to catalyze the educational component of what has always gone on here. The energy behind it has been inside the studio for a long time.” Monday evenings, invited guests lead seminars on subjects ranging from new media to the book business. On the night I attended, the COO of a water-filtration company spoke about his company’s technology and passed around sample cups of treated-sewage drinking water from Singapore—a perfect example of nature’s subjection to design. Mau sat at the table with the students, who raised their hands to ask questions that began, “I was just reading a book about the future…” When the conversation strayed toward the need for rule of law in the developing world, I found it increasingly difficult to keep hold of the fact that this is an “office” or even a “studio”—either way, a place of serious commercial work.

But this tension is exactly the point. It is Mau’s “fascination with reality” that leads him to welcome the opportunity to design something as constrained as panel fabrics and something as grand as the “welfare of the entire human race.” He describes a split “between a kind of romantic notion of design as singular and aesthetic and above the fray, and the real sort of daily life of people, which is so much more interesting. It’s not that we’re not aesthetes—because we certainly are that—but we like the idea of engaging with tough problems.”

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