One Minute past Twelve
The relevance of Victor Papanek today
It could be said that Victor Papanek sowed the seed for what was to become widely accepted knowledge and indeed a call to action within western society as a whole. However, as with so many good prophecies, it was not until a lot of damage had been done that enlightenment would take hold and corrective measures would begin to be taken on a large scale. It is at once heartening and tragic to know that the publication of his seminal book in 1971 holds so many precious insights into the makings of a better world.
Born in Vienna; died in Lawrence, Kansas. Victor Papanek travelled the world from the 1960s onwards as an itinerant preacher of ‘real’ design. Lambasted by American industrial designers as a ‘design’s gadfly’, debunked by some of the Ulm protagonists as ‘Bombast aus Pappe’ (bombast made of cardboard), and occasionally heralded as the ‘garbage can designer’. Those who still consider his book Design for the Real World as their bible, celebrate him today as the anti hero of design. Anyone who causes opinion to be polarised in this way does not leave us cold. Current fashions in design, art, and architecture now enable those of us born in the early 1970s to relive our childhood: remakes of informal sofa landscapes, reinterpretations of living cubes and units – whether as spaces inside spaces or as meandering urban structures, the omnipresent insistence on handcrafted manufacture as the alternative to industrial production, and the exaggerated evocation of nature in product advertising – form part of contemporary lifestyle trends. This might be exciting for young people and amusing for those in their mid-40s and 50s, but – as gleaned from conversations with those who helped to shape the 1960s and 1970s as adults – also bizarre and often questionable. Although we know these recurrences transport the social and political zeitgeist, we are used to stylistic revivals and tend to dismiss them as fads. A more difficult state of affairs is in the current rediscovery of socially and ecologically motivated texts and manifestos that called for radical renewal in production and consumer culture and were a provocation to industry and design associations. In view of explosive problems such as a shortage of resources, environmental pollution, and growing social injustice –texts and books of 40 years ago already warned against their massive consequences – the pioneers of social and ecological design are again being consulted for solutions. On the other hand, it appears that the rebellious slogans of that time can today also serve as updated sound bites.
A central figure in the contemporary confrontation with social and ecological design is the Austro-American designer, author, critic and teacher, Victor Papanek (1923-1998), who in 1971 published one of the most provocative books on design, a bestseller translated into more than 20 languages: Design for the Real World. Human Ecology and Social Change. His work was a challenge to his colleagues to participate in rescuing the world rather than acting as the henchmen of industry. Today, the appropriation of Papanek’s powerfully eloquent polemics links up excellently with the cultural and industrial critique introduced in the 1970s by the dawning environmental movement. His warning statements, like “As socially and morally involved designers, we must address ourselves to the needs of a world with its back to the wall, while the hands on the clock point perpetually to one minute before twelve” comply very well as advertisements for contemporary design competitions, international symposiums, and exhibition statements. Papanek’s rebellious 1970s spirit is now often used to throw down a challenge for sustainable design of the social environment. In recent years his erstwhile critique of the consumer society, design, and industry seems to be in favour once more.
When Victor Papanek published Design for the RealvWorld in English in 1971, the affluence and progress augured by the consumer society and technology in the dominant western industrial nations had already lost credibility. This book appeared roundabout the same time as the Club of Rome study The Limits to Growth, Alvin Toeffler’s Future Shock, and Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. It captured the mood of the young people who blamed their parent’s generation for exploiting the planet, and also of those who, following the zeitgeist, sought alternative modes and means of design, production, and consumption. Just as Richard Buckminster Fuller inspired an earlier generation of students, his disciple and friend, Papanek, managed to inject enthusiasm into disillusioned design and architecture students in the late 1960s. In his ambition to educate designers for the real world, he united the frustration felt by the younger generation of designers for the design status quo, with the quest for the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ aspects of the new, upcoming social movements; like a preacher, sometimes enraged, occasionally over-the-top, yet also humorous, he poured out his invective against mass consumption and false distribution policies while advocating a new solidarity of industrial nations toward the socially underprivileged in their own society and toward the outcasts in the so called Third World. Papanek’s real world encompasses the cataclysmic social and ecological consequences caused by mismanagement of, for example, the American automobile and agricultural industry; the lack of integration of underprivileged population sectors; and the lifethreatening scenarios of epidemics and catastrophes. “Maybe we learn best from disasters”, he sums up, looking back at design developments in one of his many new, self-revised editions. Even in the 1980s he anticipated how human and ecological catastrophes such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, or an ongoing recession can influence design trends.
Then, as now, it is an interplay between the predominating circumstances and the visions of a better world. In the first part of Design for the Real World: How it is, Papanek summarises the status quo, settles a score between the elite mindset in design and the manic obsession of industry with growth and mass production, which breeds a spendthrift, consumer “Kleenex culture”. In the book’s second part: How it could be, he maps out the counter-model of a design culture based on low-tech solutions, decentralized production, sustainable usage, and a designer codex that today we would call open-source thinking. This concept is mainly founded on examples from his broad teaching practice in the USA and Europe, including Purdue University in Indianapolis, the California Institute of the Arts, and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. When Papanek maps-out information and learning tools with his students, their speciality lies less in the quality of the individual concepts than in the problem areas they expose. Questioning the commodity culture of the First World via best-practice examples of products and services for the Third World, he envisions future fields of design and their implementation in design education meeting the needs of the ‘majority’ of a growing world population, while staying in harmony with nature. Meanwhile, Papanek’s Utopia remains pragmatic. His designs are shaped by the technological solutions that correspond to the circumstances. The preoccupation with medicinal equipment, information, and educational devices, projects against soil erosion, or alternative means of transport for Southeast Asia and Africa, formed part of his work for WHO, UNIDO, and the UNESCO Technical Experts Programme. Projects during the 1960s included: the famous Tin Can Radio with Georg Seeger, a homemade mono receiver made of recycled material operating on paraffin or cow dung and costing only 9 cents; artificial burrs covered with plant seed and made of biodegradable plastic, developed by James Herold and John Truan; as well as designs for muscledriven heavy-duty vehicles for use in rough territory. Many of the book’s improvement proposals are not even set out in sketch form but emerge purely from Papanek’s narrative. This is where he goes fiction al. Most imaginary are his submarine stations and moon settlements made from the tetracaidecaeder (a crystalline polygon), or huge, computer-controlled cargo sailing ships. Work is being feverishly carried out on these so as to reduce the catastrophic emission of CO2 and fossil fuel consumption in tankers, demonstrated most recently in the University of Tokyo’s study reports on the UT Wind Challenger and a cargo sailing ship 100 metres long, weighing 2,700 metric tons, belonging to the Northern Irish B9 Energy Group.
This would please Papanek. He thought little of the sanctity of authorship in design or a restrictive patent system, and was more for the ‘evolution’ of designs: “I do not believe that patents work towards the social good.” Besides finding future fields for design, he allotted the designer a new role as interdisciplinary team player, seen in his Work Chart for Designers in Design for the Real World. Designers become mediators between the specialists of very different disciplines involved in the design process, and most importantly, the users are integral to the team. He generally assigns much greater creative potential to the so-called amateurs than being sympathetic to the advocates of ‘good form’. By stating “All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity” he denied the prevailing design authorities. Papanek’s private lifestyle verifies him as a connoisseur and lover of ‘good design’ – after all, he went through the draconic school of Frank Lloyd Wright – however, he breaks with traditional, narrow-minded design theories. Here Papenek is a child of his time, rejecting formal dogmas in the spirit of the alternative movement: “In an age when we seem to be mastering aspects of form, a return to content is already long overdue.” He also encouraged students without design training to come to his courses (Purdue was then a place for engineers and agricultural scientists). This explains why many of his progeny never worked in the ‘unreal’ design world, but in less glamorous fields.
Besides the de-specialisation of designers, Papanek’s design understanding is oriented on holistically working syntheses and, above all, on consumer empowerment. The wide circulation of Design for the Real World as well as some of his other books: How Things Don’t Work (1977), Design for Human Scale (1983), and The Green Imperative (1995), was due to his popular language style and the contents, which relate to the everyday world and target a wide, not only specialist readership. The books Nomadic Furniture 1 and 2, published jointly with James Hennessey in the 1970s, also fuse the call for freedom from consumer compulsions – in this case from the expensive purchase of furnishings – with the idea of the self-determined consumer. Here Papanek’s autobiographical needs as a ‘nomadic’ lecturer and researcher coincide with the fact that then (as now) many young people had very little money to finance a perforce mobile, professional lifestyle. The manuals contain instructions on do-it-yourself furniture and are today an essential reference work for prosumer culture. The end the consumer’s involvement in furniture design and production implies questions of lifestyle, but also the search for new production styles. Sensuously experienced production methods can thus challenge automated mass production. In this context, Papanek’s and Hennessey’s credo of “Having more by owning less”, as propounded in the books, again suggests a paradigm shift. The question as to whether we really are moving into a future free of consumer compulsions – or rather, whether we want to – is posed by the exhibition Nomadic Furniture 3.0 – New Liberated Living, at the MAK in Vienna (12.06 - 06.10.2013). The hitherto short-changed confrontation with Papanek’s contribution to do-it-yourself furniture construction indicates that critical design phenomena, too, find themselves in continual flux between mainstream and alternative culture. Perhaps we shall soon have to file “design for the real world” under the heading of fashionable lifestyle – or take seriously the admonishing finger of its preacher. ‹
The authors co-edited the German version of the new edition of Design for the Real World. Their studies led to the founding of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.