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Thursday, December 17, 2009

A master of imagery and collaboration, Bruce Mau discusses his role in design culture with Architectural Record


Life Style photo courtesy Phaidon Press.
architect/artist: Bruce Mau

interview title: A master of imagery and collaboration, Bruce discusses his role in design culture.

interviews compilation no: T-32
interview format: Text
date: June, 2001
appeared in: Architectural Record
interviewer: John E. Czarnecki, Assoc. AIA
photo by: All images courtesy Bruce Mau Design except where noted


Interview Details:

Bruce Mau relishes problems. He may be best known for his graphic design of books and other publications, but don’t call Mau a graphic designer. Viewing design in far broader terms, Mau has collaborated with architects, filmmakers, and performance artists, and has designed videos, exhibitions, and graphic identities for buildings and companies. Since 1985 he has had a studio in Toronto, Bruce Mau Design, and has been design director of Zone Books. He was creative director of I.D. magazine from 1991 to 1993. With Rem Koolhaas, Mau designed S,M,L,XL and is currently working on the Seattle Public Library and an urban park in Toronto. With Frank O. Gehry, Mau developed the environmental graphics for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, now under construction in Los Angeles. For the UCLA Hammer Museum [Record, June 2001, page 42], Mau is creating an identity for a building by architect Michael Maltzan. A book of Mau’s own work, Life Style [December 2000, page 61], was recently published. Mau spoke with Record about Life Style, collaborations, and the New York Times building that could have been.

Bruce Mau has designed Life Style (above, 2000), which documents his practice, and S,M,L,XL (top right, 1995), which presents the work of Rem Koolhaas. For Indigo bookstores in Toronto (below), Mau developed a visual identity program.
© Robert G. Hill

Architectural Record: After producing books and publications for other people, what did you have in mind for your own book, Life Style?

Bruce Mau: I wanted to respond to the general design culture evolving around us. In my studio, we see our work evolving in response to that context, and we realize that in order to produce work in that context, we need to get a handle on what exactly the context is.

Our audience is people who work in the realm of the image. That is a pretty broad spectrum these days because it includes people who work not only in acknowledged realms, like design or architecture or publishing, but also in business.

Mau is part of the team that won a competition in 2000 for the design of Downsview Park (below), a 322-acre park on a former military base in Toronto. The team includes Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture; Petra Blaisse, Inside Outside; and Oleson Worland Architects.

One of the many publications that Mau designed for Zone Books is The Libertine Reader (1997), a collection of erotic letters, fiction, and other texts from 18th-century France (top). In a collaboration with André Lepecki and John Oswald, Mau created a video-based installation, STRESS (below), shown in Vienna in 2000.

AR: With the imagery and text, there are multiple layers of information in Life Style.

BM: Yes, there’s a kind of dance that happens between the two. In publishing, obviously, there’s a certain kind of precision needed in the text that’s quite different from what’s required for the image.

AR: What lessons from the production of S,M,L,XL, which was more than 1,400 pages, informed your work in Life Style, which was more than 600 pages?

BM:There were a lot of lessons. One is that as you scale an object up in terms of its sheer volume, it’s not a linear progression in terms of its complexity. It actually gets very complex very quickly in a certain way because, at a certain number of pages, a change is not just a change—it’s something that has to ripple through everything.

With Life Style, it’s actually taken to another level. It’s really conceived as a kind of multi-track recording, where there are three different tracks of material in a composition conceived from the outside as a shape itself. [The three tracks] in Life Style are life theories, life projects, and life stories, and those are each broken out into text and image.

AR: In general terms, how is the design of publications evolving?

BM: Today, it’s all about the image and using a kind of cinematic cadence, and introducing a whole different book culture. It’s a kind of hybridized product because culture, in a way, is subject to Darwinism too. If a magazine were about to be eliminated as a product, it would be because it wasn’t very effective. But, on the contrary, it’s a very efficient product.

Photo courtesy Lindy Roy/Roy Inc.
This year, with New York architect Lindy Roy [News, May 2001, page 50], Mau has developed a brand identity program, marketing, and signage for Access Storage Solutions (above), a British storage company. Working with Koolhaas on the Seattle Public Library, which has yet to begin construction, Mau has designed signage and environmental graphics (Below).

 For the identity of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design in 1999, Mau conceptualized variations (line, stack, and mark) of text components.
All images courtesy Bruce Mau Design except where noted.

AR: You also work with architects. What is interesting in your collaborations with architects is that the role of the graphic designer is really changing. Now you’re being brought on at the very beginning of projects. How does that affect your role?

BM: The people we collaborate with are often adventurous in many ways. For instance, when I started working on the Seattle library with Rem, I asked him, "Do you want me to do signage, or do you want me to think about the project?" He said, "I want you to think about the project." [Rem] has systematically worked to break down those boundaries.

All of the processes of creative production that use the image as a kind of modus operandi are being transformed. They’re under pressures in many ways. A lot of the things that are sort of unsatisfactory in the world are those where there hasn’t been a synthesis across disciplines. So we need to develop methods that are cross-disciplinary in order to deal with issues like the workplace, and all sorts of things around the way that we work and live. Like the category of graphic designer—I’ve sort of dropped the word graphic from my own title.

AR: But that is your background and training.

BM: Yes, that’s really how I started. But it’s such a limiting qualifier that I’ve just decided to be a designer and to invest in the word designer and disinvest in graphic. The reason that we are what we are is that we use communication design technique to explore ideas. Whether they’re spatial, organizational, typographic, formal, or business ideas, we use communication technique to think about those problems and communicate them in a new way. And that allows us, in a way, to invent things that other people are unable to.

AR: Does this closer collaboration between architect and designer point to the importance of image?

BM: The realm of the image is more important than ever, but it’s a very complex realm. People still make a distinction between a building and an image, and I think that distinction is less and less supportable.

AR: You’ve collaborated with architects like Rem and Frank Gehry on certain projects. Are you extremely selective in who you work with?

BM: Yes. Because we have such an intimate collaboration, we’re pretty selective. We make sure that they have a kind of sympathy for the ambitions of our work, and that, frankly, we have sympathy for the ambitions of theirs.

AR: When you collaborate with Rem, for example, what exactly is your role? I assume that it may be different on each project, but why does he need another designer with him early on?

BM: Well, Rem typically has a lot of designers with him on projects, but the methods that we’ve evolved have to do with rigorous analysis and structure of content—a method that could be applied to almost anything. It’s this method that is really critical. The first sort of significant work has to do with conceptualizing the project in the world. Then [with this method] we can produce a park, a book, an institution, a business, or whatever.

AR: You’ve suggested that industrial designers are, in some ways, the model of the future and that architects are going to be following the way industrial designers do things. How so?

BM: Well, I would suggest that it’s going to be a kind of hybridization [of designers], and the sooner we can get to the advantages that that offers, the more fun we’re going to have. The way it works now is that an engineer often does structure, an architect does skin, a space planner does interiors, and an industrial designer does product. It’s a nasty mess. The quality of life that it produces is also a nasty mess, and we all suffer. The problems are where those things rub up against one another.

AR: There’s lots of talk these days about architects and designers collaborating, but they’re not always good at it.

BM: The reason that I got interested in architecture is that I saw it as a field of synthesis—basically a place where you bring into play all these different things. And I think that’s Rem’s real genius—his ability to pull talent into play on projects and let things evolve.

AR: You’re working with Koolhaas on the design of the Seattle Public Library. It’s a rather public project with a lot of input from a very interested constituency.

BM: Yes, the library has an incredible process. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The public interest is phenomenal—literally 2,600 people in a huge auditorium for a design presentation.

AR: What residual impact does the public process have?

BM: The process can have a profound effect on the discourse of the city. People can be introduced to a whole other language and level of thinking that can shape many other things in the city that have nothing to do with the library.

AR: On a broader urban scale, you are working with a team that includes Koolhaas on the design of Downsview Park, a 322-acre urban park on a former military base in Toronto [News, July 2000, page 28]. What’s the significance of this project for you?

BM: It’s a civic project, and the civic is under siege at the moment. Anything public ought to be aggressively promoted. So to take our place in a kind of civic discourse and to begin to engage in these things is really important.

AR: Can you explain the design process for Downsview?

BM: Basically, what we did was map out a series of concepts that we thought would be significant for the work. Those eventually became the kind of formula for the project.

One of the distinctions between this park and any other that I know about is that it’s not really a design for a park; it’s a formula or an algorithm for producing an environment like this. One of the things that we still have to figure out is how to control it. So we’re going to design a process or a method or a recipe—it’s quite a different kind of strategy. We designed a vector, basically, and it’s a question of how to define the vector.

AR: You’ve said that typography and urban planning are one in the same. Can you explain that? How is that informing what you’re doing at Downsview?

BM: Well, they’re one in the same in that if you approach it with a method, the problems are more or less the same. Of course, there are different techniques that you have to deploy to be successful. One of the arguments about the global image economy is that, as an environment, design is scaleable. So we pour the same kind of design focus into typography as we do into urbanism. In some ways, it’s a transposable method. You have a set of different questions or issues or objectives [for typography versus urban design], and you want to achieve certain effects. When you abstract the method, the method is in fact very similar.

Of course, it’s different scales of complexity, but in a certain way it’s not. You can understand the complexity of the world in letter forms and you can understand the complexity of the world in a park design, too.

AR: You were going to work with Frank Gehry on the New York Times headquarters, had he won the competition [News, october 2000, page 44]. Can you comment on why Gehry dropped out before Renzo Piano won the commission?

BM: The New York Times wanted the product without the process, which is really a tragedy. They just wanted to buy the product like you could just get it off the shelf, and it’s not a shelf-made product. It’s a process. I think it was incredibly brave of [Gehry] to say to the New York Times, "I can’t deliver. I can’t guarantee for myself that I’ll deliver the quality that I need if you squeeze the process." And I think he did absolutely the right thing. We had a beautiful scheme, which is such a shame.

AR: You’ve designed publications and exhibitions, have collaborated with architects on buildings and a park, and have even designed the uniforms for the Canadian Olympic team. Are you open to any design project?

BM: I’m pretty open, but I need a certain level of complexity to feel challenged. I need problems.


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