“We can make things happen,” says Bruce Mau (above, at his Winnetka home). “We have the abilities to transform our lives.”
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
The Seattle Public Library, redesigned by Rem Koolhaas in collaboration with Mau.
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Exactly who Mau is or what he does is not easy to pin down. Although rooted in graphic design, his career has arced into the worlds of architecture, art, museums, film, eco-environmental design, and conceptual philosophy. “From giving visual form to the texts of others, Mau has become a thoughtful commentator on issues of consumption, persuasion and communication,” writes the design critic Steven Heller in Eye, an international quarterly review of graphic design. In a review of Mau’s Life Style, a 624-page manifesto published in 2000, the late New York Times design critic Herbert Muschamp said the book “tantalizes readers with glimpses into the thinking of one of the most creative minds at work in design today.”
Mau hasn’t wowed everyone, particularly when it comes to his more conceptual visionary work. “No one should suggest that Mau is an emperor without clothes,” wrote Robert Fulford, critic for the Toronto paper the National Post, in 2001. “He wears the wrong clothes. He’s a talented designer who now stands before us costumed as a philosopher, a social critic, and an artist. In these roles he appears to have nothing to say.” Today, nine years later, Fulford confirms, “I still feel exactly the same way.”
Yet a thick portfolio of people, companies, and institutions think Mau has much to offer. In 1996, Indigo, a start-up bookstore company in Canada, gave Mau four months to create a total “delivery of place.” He did, moving the concept from a traditional bookstore to “a marketplace for culture.” His studio designed everything from the signs outside to the way the stores were laid out internally to the sugar packets in the stores’ cafés. Today, Indigo racks up nearly $1 billion in sales annually and owns a sizable share of the book-music retail market in Canada.
Coca-Cola worked with Mau to overhaul its corporate culture and eco-consciousness. He consolidated Coke’s scattered efforts in various divisions into a cohesive long-range vision of sustainability and future development. This included identifying sustainability goals within the company’s established business cycles, creating tools for employee engagement, and branding the company with a new motto: “Live Positively.” Various changes were implemented for Coke consumers, including moving calorie information up front in easy-to-read print and offering smaller sizes for portion control.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York was renovated, it asked Mau to revitalize its distinctive logo. He did so by thinking of printed language as a metaphor for sound. Today, MoMA’s logo on the outside of the building is loud—that is, bold and eye catching. Inside, it moves to quiet signage (white raised print on a white background) so as not to overpower the art.
Despite all the activity, a funny thing happened to the designer-cum-visionary. He forgot to design his own life. “I have allowed so many things in life to just happen to me,” he says with a sense of amazement. Now that he can do anything, what will he do? Mau is working on that.
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Upstairs, the girls—Osunkemi, Omalola, and Adeshola (named in honor of Williams’s Nigerian heritage)—are romping. Outside, a chipmunk ponders how to run through one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. And sitting around the table in their white-on-white dining room (only a few yellow roses spike the color quotient), Williams and Mau are talking. The couple met in 1988 in Toronto when Williams showed up at Mau’s studio to have lunch with one of his colleagues. Mau invited himself to the outing, and the two have been together ever since. They married four years later.
“We think Chicago is the best place for us,” says Williams, who is a sleek, animated Jamaican-Nigerian-Canadian. A former television program developer and events planner for the arts, she is in constant motion, a member of the Ravinia Festival Women’s Board and a cochair of the School of the Art Institute’s annual fashion show benefit called The Walk.
“It’s a welcoming and friendly city,” says Mau, who also acknowledges that a strong U.S. presence helps his studio reach high-end corporate clients. In recent years, at the urging of his business partner, the Canadian mogul Miles Nadal, Mau has undergone some significant, if not massive, changes himself in an attempt to redesign his own life. He has shaved off his ZZ Top–style beard and tamed his curly hair with a shorter cut. His sturdy frame has slimmed down a bit, and he is maximizing technology to reduce his previously arduous travel schedule. Today, he has even eschewed his usual all-black wardrobe for an untucked plaid shirt and white painter pants. Although he held an endowed chair, created for him, at the School of the Art Institute (where he once taught a class) and still holds a distinguished fellowship at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, he doesn’t currently teach any classes. Mainly he works out of his home, where he tends to stay up late. When he lived in Toronto, he walked to his office, but now he walks the private lanes between his house and Lake Michigan and then Skypes meetings—which he calls “workings”—with his Toronto and Chicago offices.
“In many ways, Bruce’s cultural influence has already become woven into our everyday lives,” says Helga Stephenson, a partner at a Toronto-based public relations firm and a longtime friend of the couple. Stephenson, former director of the Toronto International Film Festival, first met Mau when he was installing one of his museum shows, and she sat on several nonprofit boards with Williams. “Bisi is heaven’s gift to fundraisers,” says Stephenson, “and her ideas are innovative and fun.”
“If you saw them and didn’t know them, you would want to,” says Donna La Pietra, vice president of the media company Kurtis Productions and a local society and civic force. “They have an energy that is slightly higher than the rest of us have.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Bruce Mau Design
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Mau was born and raised in the tough mining town of Sudbury, a small place five hours north of Toronto. (Recently he accepted the town’s proposal that he work on a creative blueprint for the community’s future.) His stepfather worked in the mines; Bruce and his four sisters worked the family farm, which had no running water during the winter months. As a child, he felt different; he says he didn’t inherit the hunting and hockey genes. He loved the science lab of his local high school, but when he was 15 he had an epiphany: He wanted to go to art school. The school counselor told him it was too late. “How could my fate have been sealed at 15?” he asks. After putting up a fight, he was allowed to enroll in a special art program, and he stayed an additional year in high school, taking extra art classes. The school had an old one-color Heidelberg offset press; Mau reconfigured it to make his own four-color prints. The strength of those prints won him entrance to Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design.
But he didn’t like the restriction of classes, and he soon dropped out and made his way to London, England, where he was hired by the prestigious design firm Pentagram. He got politicized in London, in reaction to the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher, who was then the prime minister, and the fit with Pentagram quickly felt too corporate. He returned to Toronto and, in 1985, opened his own studio. He also began to wonder: Is design just to meet the needs of the client? and How am I not going to be bored? (Number 15 of his Incomplete Manifesto: Ask stupid questions.) The answers started to come when he was hired by Zone Books in New York City to design a new book series. Mau’s work on the series—including a pre–digital age digital-like book cover image—was considered highly inventive at the time, combining various mismatched types and images with striking results.
The Zone books made his name, but eventually boredom set in. After designing a book for Frank Gehry, Mau was offered a collaboration with him on what would become the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Mau and his design studio created a signature identity for the hall, including the use of “environmental graphics.” After testing more than 5,000 existing typographic fonts, Mau and company merged several together to invent the new typeface A Font Called Frank. This typography was then integrated into the outside of the building by creating perforations in the metal that spelled out the hall’s name. By design, the perforations allowed light to “emanate from within,” as Mau puts it. After this project, he began to change his view of design and, hence, the possibilities in the world. “We can make things happen,” he says. “We have the abilities to transform our lives.”
As Warren Berger notes in Glimmer, the idea that design can solve the world’s problems goes back at least a century. The British designer William Morris, a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, saw design as entwined with utopianism. The modernism and futurism movements of the early and middle twentieth century had ambitions to improve the quality of life for large populations. And the geodome-designing Buckminster Fuller envisioned an environmental design democracy. Mau continues in that tradition (number 23: Stand on someone’s shoulders), in a constant quest to reshape and rethink life around him.
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Does he believe one can design happiness? He hesitates for just a moment. “I think it would be a mistake to imagine that there is a place you can get to where you would be happy. But I do think you can design a life that is fulfilling on the road to that place. Of course, it has pitfalls and wrong turns—bad people, accidents. But I do think it’s possible to apply design in a much broader way than ever imagined. We get calls every week about applying design to holistic systems.”
A system, he explains in his quiet, almost hypnotic voice, is anything that we do over and over again. The way McDonald’s makes hamburgers is a system. A business that has a seven-year plan to scrap all its mechanics is a system. And any system is open to design, he says.
Mau is not given to sound bites or easy-to-digest quotes, but in a long, reasoned monologue, he lays out the groundwork for his thinking: Every system has a flow, and every flow has cycles. Every cycle is an opportunity for massive change, and the longer the flow, the more important the design decision is. “We can look at each cycle as a design problem, and this way we can help businesses make decisions that are more intelligent, much more ecological, and much smarter economically.”
And that will make us happier?
“Relatively, yes,” he says with a laugh. “Quality of life is based on the environment—all aspects of the environment—around us.”
On his own road to happiness, Mau is determined to move away from what he knows best. He wants new challenges, and he thinks he may have found them in the design of education. Arizona State University has hired him to redesign how people experience a college education. He has already proposed that ASU create a “purpose-driven” curriculum that allows students to pick and choose various department offerings rather than stick to a prescribed, cookie-cutter major. And he created a dazzling four-minute promotional video for ASU that includes language sure to be an aphrodisiac for potential students: “Go Ahead. Fail. Learn. Fail Again. Learn More. Succeed.”
That, plus his recent work on The Third Teacher, has him thinking of schools as the next arena ripe for massive change. “Freedom is one of the sources of an entrepreneurial world,” he writes in The Third Teacher. “You learn that you can make things happen. So I think that anything we can do to give children free time and free space in a rich environment that is not determined, not programmed, is a huge asset for them.” Now he is exploring the idea of expanding that concept for adults by applying his methodology to design labs at various universities. He’s also pursuing the idea of designing Massive Change classes online. “Oh, I think the potential is incredible,” he says, although how that potential may manifest itself is unknown. After all, number 17 of the Incomplete Manifesto for Growth is: _______________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.
And so, as Mau believes, if design can be applied to anything, then, like one of those living room red balloons—buoyant, fragile, and needing a bounce to spring into action—the world awaits him.