Courtesy fo SXSW Online 2021

“The mere drawing and painting world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

These words come from Walter Gropius’s 1919 Bauhaus manifesto, in which he established the Bauhaus school of design in Weimar, Germany. The Bauhaus would go on to become one of the most prolific and influential schools of design ideology in the pre-war period, though the Bauhaus philosophy lives on in designers like Bruce Mau.

Mau might not characterize himself as a descendent of the Bauhaus, but Gropius’s philosophy echoes in Mau’s visionary thinking. “MAU,” a documentary about the designer’s life and work, premiered at SXSW Online 2021 last Thursday. According to Mau, since nearly every aspect of life is in some way designed, life itself can be redesigned for the better. Thus, Mau is eager to take on the task of redesigning human existence.

The documentary is loosely structured as a chronology of Mau’s life, beginning with his childhood in Sudbury, Ontario, a Canadian mining town. Mau explains that growing up in such an artless place made him realize that he could, and must, design his own life. This concept is an exciting part of Mau’s philosophy: Design is participatory. Anyone who takes an active role in shaping their own future or surroundings is, by definition, a designer. That said, not just anyone can be as visionary as Mau.

Mau’s portfolio is impressive. He made a name for himself working with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the 1990s on a book of Koolhaas’s work titled “S,M,L,XL.” On the cover, Mau’s name is printed as big as Koolhaas’s — when asked about this at the time, Mau described the book as “an object that is generated by the two of us.” The designer’s role in this collaboration was instrumental in making the book what it would become: a seminal text in the history of architecture monographs.

Having been called upon to rethink Coca-Cola’s brand image, reimagine Mecca (yes, Mecca) and redesign the Museum of Modern Art’s “graphic identity,” Mau has immense range and influence. Interestingly, though, Mau turned down the chance to leave his mark on MoMA. When museum director Glenn Lowry asked for his input, Mau gave him an honest answer: Don’t change a thing. To some, turning down glory is a sign of humility or perhaps foolishness, but for Mau, it is a sign of real commitment to the world as he feels it should be. 

The film culminates in a sequence of more recent projects, namely Mau’s 2004 exhibition “Massive Change” and proposed 2019 follow-up “Massive Action.” Per the Bruce Mau Design website, “Massive Change” tried to answer the question “Can good design help solve some of humanity’s most urgent problems?” The exhibition had a mixed reception. Some praised Mau for his commitment to positive evolution, though others dismissed the work as optimistic and utopian. I see both sides.

In an online discussion following the documentary premiere, Mau spoke with Sanford Kwinter of Pratt Institute about Mau’s new book “MC24.” The book is a compilation of Mau’s 24 principles of design, such as “first inspire,” “begin with fact based optimism” and “we are not separate from, or above, nature.” Mau discusses what he calls the “crisis stack” in which society’s problems interact and influence one another. Mau’s answer to these problems is also one of his key aphorisms: “Empathy is the key to a positive future.” Design is Mau’s mechanism for empathetic solutions. 

In his presentation, Mau quotes Arnold Toynbee, a historian who said that in the 19th century people “dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race.” I counter that while people may have thought of this welfare, they did not improve it. Agreeing with Toynbee, Mau now wishes to amend this goal for the 21st century by striving to think of “the welfare of all of life.” If we achieve this goal in the way that we “achieved” the former, we are doomed. 

Mau wants to move past “human-centered design … that places ourself at the center of the universe.” He recognizes that this process is ongoing: “We’re still trying to realize … that we are simply another chapter in the story.” 

Mau does have an admirable sense of the future. When working to improve human traffic and the worshipper’s experience in Mecca, Mau was asked to create a 10-year plan. He came back with a 1,000-year proposal. However, there is a not-so-small hint of megalomania (a charge Mau admits he has faced in the past) in Mau’s plans for a global redesign. Many of humanity’s problems currently do not exist because someone designed poorly, but because designs that work elsewhere were imposed where they might have done more harm than good. 

Mau claims his design methodology is grounded in empathy, but feeling someone’s pain is not the same as inviting them to the table when developing solutions. It is possible to redesign the world, but not according to the vision or methodology of one man. Global participation and input are required.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.