Bruce Mau: From Innovative Graphic Designer to World-Class Conceptualist

THE TRANSFORMER: Bruce Mau has gone from innovative graphic designer to world-class conceptualist, producing books and museum shows, collaborating with star architects, and rethinking and revamping education. Several years ago, the Canadian native moved to Chicago, where he’s been embraced by the city’s movers and shakers (including Mayor Daley) and where he now pushes his empire toward its modest goal: using design to change the world

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Bruce Mau
“We can make things happen,” says Bruce Mau (above, at his Winnetka home). “We have the abilities to transform our lives.”
 

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Inside his Winnetka living room decked out with midcentury furnishings and a Steinway grand piano, Bruce Mau is bouncing balloons. The giant air-filled spheres would resemble globes—if the world had turned from blue and green to red with streaks of marbleized orange. Which may happen, because with Mau, renowned designer and conceptual thinker, anything is possible.

“Aren’t these great?” he asks, breaking into a bold, childlike laugh. “I found these on the West Side, over by Harpo Studios, and I thought, We need these in the house.” One balloon bounces on the bare floor and caroms softly off the red sofa. Another sails through the air, barely missing the Henry Moore sculpture, and thwacks against the bookcase. It is a great room, in the parlance of house design—living and dining unified into one open space—and it’s also a fabulous setting, with a vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling glass doors opening onto both the front yard, with a bricked courtyard and swimming pool, and the backyard, where Mau had an underground geothermal system installed to heat and cool his late-seventies-vintage house without using gas, oil, or electricity. It’s a little slice of life off the grid, as much as a designer at the pulsing white-hot center of the current cultural universe can be off the grid.

With this spontaneous burst of ballooning, Mau and his visitor are coincidentally following several of the 43 concepts in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, which he presented in Amsterdam in 1998 and which went viral on the Internet. Number 3: Process is more important than outcome. Number 12: Keep moving. Number 21: Repeat yourself. Or it could all fall under number 14: Don’t be cool. But it doesn’t feel that way. (The manifesto is posted at chicagomag.com/brucemau.)

Bruce Mau, 50, wants to change how everyone thinks about life, and for more than two decades he has fashioned a unique career to further that goal. First, he produced books and museum shows. Then, moving from print to public spaces, he collaborated with the star architects Frank Gehry (the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles) and Rem Koolhaas (the redesign of the Seattle Public Library). He designed a park in Toronto and a museum in Panama. In South America, the government of Colombia wanted to hire him to conceptualize a plan to reform drug dealers into upstanding citizens. The project never materialized, although Mau was game.

“I want to liberate design from the visual,” he says.

In Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World (Penguin Press, 2009), by Warren Berger, Mau is cited as probably the best-known exemplar of the glimmer design movement (other glimmerati include Dean Kamen, who produced the Segway, and Yves Behar, who designed the low-priced XO laptop computer). Playing off the phrase “glimmer of hope,” Berger populates the movement with designers and others—tinkerers, activists, video gamers, entrepreneurs, and so on—all linked in the “belief that everything today is ripe for reinvention and smart recombination.”

Though a designer, Mau avoids the prototype because he wants to de-emphasize the way things look—a total reverse of the design trends of the 1980s, when the process was all about the appearance of things such as teakettles or pieces of furniture. Instead, he focuses on changing the fundamental way design combines with society, moving design beyond aesthetic concerns and into the mainstream of everyday life. Forget form following function; for Mau, form follows philosophy.

Massive Change, for example, was a gigantic multimedia art installation curated by Mau in Vancouver in 2004 as a blueprint for the future. In it, he moved from the world of design to the design of the world, including works of engineers, scientists, economists, and dreamers on such diverse subjects as sustainable agriculture, virtual war, biotech body parts, and rural electrification. (Eventually, Massive Change became a book, an educational program, a blog, and a radio program.) In Massive Change, Mau posed the questions, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do? What if life itself became a design project?”

The show—which Time called “a cabinet of wonders” and Wired deemed “a world’s fair hopped up on human growth hormone”—moved to Toronto and then, in late 2006, opened at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Embraced by the movers and shakers of the city (Mayor Daley honored him as a global visionary), Mau returned the love by opening a small Chicago office in 2007. Then he, his wife, Aiyemobisi “Bisi” Williams, 44, and their three daughters settled into the suburbs.

In his latest effort, a book called The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching and Learning, privately published in April, Mau collaborates with OWP/P Cannon Design and VS Furniture (a German-based school furniture company) to re-create the way children are taught. The title stems from the thoughts of the 1940s pioneering Italian teacher and psychologist Loris Malaguzzi, who believed that children develop through interactions first with the parents and teachers in their lives, then with peers, and ultimately with the environment around them. Malaguzzi’s theory that environment is the third teacher resonates with Mau and his philosophical approach: Let’s not just make more stuff; let’s make the world a better place. “Really,” he says with his trademark quiet intensity, “design could just be able to solve the world’s problems.”

 

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

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