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Styling Life: A Conversation with Bruce Mau

This article appeared in Dialogue, April 2001, No. 46

Bruce Mau is the chairman of the Toronto based Bruce Mau Design Inc.  He established his studio in 1985 by working with Zone Books, a non-profit venture launched by a group of writers.  Since then he has designed all of the output of Zone, including books, posters, flyers, and catalogues.   He is also an editor of Swerve Editions, a Zone imprint.  He has maintained on going collaborations with architects Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry; devised identity program for institutions, such as the Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Andy Warhol Museum; collaborated with artists,Gordon Monahan, Michael Snow, Meg Stuart, and Douglas Gordon.  He is a co-author of S,M,L,XL with Koolhaas, published in 1996.  His latest book, Life Style, published by Phaidon Press in 2000, is a compilation of his essays, stories, and projects.

MF  Your new book, Life Style, is not really about lifestyle, why the title then?

BM  When we were working on the book, we tossed around a lot of titles.  At some point we settled on Life Style, because all of our work is some kind of meta project on ways of living.  The title serves the studio and the practice.  We spend a lot time thinking about how the studio should be organized and how our work should be conducted.  It is also about style as a kind of occupation of the world.  In the introduction to the book, Sanford Kwinter talks about stylistic innovations in sports, as in someone like Pele or Gretzky that generates a new style by the way they move through time and space, where you can no longer go back to the way the world worked before.  When we broke the term “lifestyle” in two pieces we are able to see it as the intersection of living and ways of being in the world.  Life Style seems to be a perfect term for that.

MF  You worked at the design firm Pentagram before you started your studio.  Can you talk about the differences between the two firms, the different ways the firms approach the work and their organizations?

BM  It is hard to compare the two because it was twenty years ago when I worked at Pentagram.  I don’t really know what they do now.  They are more complex than a typical firm.  The thing I was uncomfortable with was the type of compromises made about the meaning of the work.  That’s what I was really searching for; searching for a way for all the energy that I was spending to have a significance and meaning. 

MF  You like to hire architects rather than graphic designers for your studio.  What’s the reason for that?

BM  There are some good reasons.  Independent graphics design has a very limited history, maybe fifty years old.  So when I was looking for that kind of meaning and significance, I looked at cinema and architecture instead -- two fields that are tangential to my own.  In cinema I found people like Marker, Bresson, and Hitchcock.  In architecture I realized I had a real affinity for urbanism and for thinking about the city.  In that domain people have an engagement with the politics of form.  As students, architects studied the history of political dimension of formal works.  They understand form in those terms.  Architects are also people who are more inclined to do things and to put things together.  Architecture is a discipline of synthesis where you have to take many other disciplines and integrate them. That’s really what I imagined design to be.  Over the years I hired a lot of graduate architects.  Because they are already educated, I can train them.  It is much harder to educate a trained person than to train an educated person.  A lot of the best people in the studio have been trained as architects. Over time our practice has become really synthetic and our work is more about taking complex range of materials and producing something out of that. We have been very productive in that context.

MF  You are a co-author of S,M,L,XL with Rem Koolhaas. What was your role in terms of the structure and content of the book? You have collaborated with Koolhaas many times since the book, how has the relationship changed?

BM  When I met Rem I thought he was already famous.  I didn’t realize what was about to happen to him.  Now he is in the stratosphere of fame.  The demands on him are really extreme, and his career and work have taken on enormous dimension.  So I see much less of him now than when we first worked together.  Back then we would spent weeks working together in my studio and now it is impossible for him to spend that kind of time on a project like S,M,L,XL.  His time is now cut into 15-minute slices like every other famous person.

The actual working process of S,M,L,XL is like an architect making a house for himself.  It is a very intimate thing, where you have to talk about your bedroom, toilet, closets...etc.  When doing a book you talk about all of your internal demons and issues.  In this case it was a group of people led by Rem and myself that also included Jennifer Sigler in his studio and Kevin Sugen in my studio.  We were all producing regardless of boundaries. Some of the things we would instigate and some of the things Jennifer or Rem would instigate.  It really was a process of iterations, doing things over and over again until we found the right way.  At some point the work has to go public.  In the public realm a lot of the complexity was lost.  The reality is that it was a really complex relationship that was navigated all the time.

MF  In S,M,L,XL  there is a close relationship between form and content.  Your new book also argues for the need for the two to be thought of together.  In your essay, “Twelve Strategies,” you said this approach to design practice arises from a deep contradiction.  Can you elaborate on this contradiction?

BM  In my field it is very easy to get trapped by the apparent and obvious roadblocks and contradictions.  I guess one of the best examples is doing a book like Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.  It is a book about the way image commodifies life.  To make a book like that you have to make an image of it.  For the book to operate and occupy in a world of objects, it has to have a certain kind of attraction as an object.  That very same attraction is the subject of its criticism.  So you need to develop strategies to deal with these paradoxes, acknowledging that you have to think and do things even though they sometime would contradict one another.  The alternative is to stop thinking and stop doing.  It is quite common that people stop thinking and keep doing.

MF  By arguing for form and content to be thought of equally, you are also looking to redistribute the power between designers and authors.  Have you had any difficulty working with authors?

BM  Actually to the contrary.  Your question implies that authors have power.  In a typical publishing scenario, they don’t.  The publisher has power and the authors are disconnected from their work.  The way typical publishers treat typical authors, or even important authors, is scandalous.  You would produce a life’s work and then not be involved with how it is produced and presented to the world; we know how the work is produced and presented can change so much the way it is received.  It would be like someone taking your voice out of your body and putting it in a big crazy guy.  So we found the opposite.  It is actually the authors who come to us and want to achieve something new, not the publisher.

MF  The idea of a close relationship between form and content is not entirely new.  One can think of the publication by Dada or the cross disciplinary program at the Bauhaus.  Are there any historic models that interest you?

BM  Yes, there are a lot of people that I am very interested in as operators, people who have been able to do things in a certain way.  One is Gyrorgy Kepes at MIT who put together a series of books called the Vision and Value series.  Another is Marcel Duchamp who has a great formulation called “illuminatistic Scribism”, the intersection of text and image.  Duchamp’s idea was that art could be eliminated from the visual and perform, in his words, “in the service of the mind.”  That’s my higher ambition.

In our work we are moving towards what we call “invisible design,”  where there isn’t a visible product at the end.  It is not product-based but more about designing strategies and abstract entities for businesses and institutions.  It is working on the conceptual design of things, which can then be handed to a designer to be made visual.  An early example is the Coca Cola Museum we developed in collaboration with Frank Gehry. We worked on the model to develop the content model of how the program will work as a new process and so Frank can then design the building.  Now we are working on a museum in New Orleans and a synagogue in Toronto.  The synagogue is a good example. They have spiritual, social, and educational ambitions that need to be projected into a facility.  These ambitions need to be manipulated to develop into a program so someone can actually design the building.  So we work with them to basically produce clarity in a set of complex ambitions.  That’s the kind of model that liberates design to be in the services of the mind.

MF  By tying form and content so closely doesn’t it make the text harder to travel or translate in this global economy?  Does this present a portability issue?

BM  I think it does present a portability issue but it is really more of a technical problem.  At some point it won’t be a problem.  It is already a lot easier to regenerate complex objects into another language.  The easiest thing to manipulate is the text.  If you keep the text independent of the image, then it is easier, but not necessarily the most powerful; you trade off effectiveness for ease of production.

MF  What’s your criteria for choosing work?  You speak about the need to engage the market, however, a lot of the work you do are mainly with institutions, galleries, a specific audience.  Is this by choice?

BM  I don’t think there is anywhere outside of the market.  Museums are still within the market, they are basically in the retail category.  One of the things we discovered over time is that places which have the liberty to be radical, like institutions, are often times the most conservative. Businesses which ought to be more conservative because there is money at stake are often the most radical.

We have a process for selecting projects which we call the five P test.  People is the first P and the most important.  In the end we spend a huge amount of time with the people we work with. If you don’t want to be with them it will be a nightmare.  This sounds kind of flaky, but in the end it is what it’s all about. You spend your life with people and if you don’t have respect for them or care for their company, you are ruining your own life.  This is very intuitive.  It is very hard to judge and you have to judge very quickly.  The second P is project.  Is it something that we are interested in? I am not particularly good at faking it, so I have to be really interested to do good work. Sometimes other people in the studio are interested, so they can do it in a real way. Usually it has to be interesting for me.  This can be a lot of different things, quirky interest, a new kind of project, or an opportunity to work with someone we really admire. There could be a lot of different reasons.  Profit is the third P.  A lot of designers have profitable work and projects that they like.  We don’t do that.  We basically try to make every project profitable.  We don’t always succeed, but we need to make a living doing the work we do.  I have only one option, which is to be successful.  I have to make money in order to continue work.  So we look at numbers and we assess whether or not we can do the project for that.  The fourth P is plate.  What’s on our plate at the moment, can we take it on?  The fifth P is place.  If it is in a place where we are already working in, it is much more efficient.  So that’s the five P test and we try to apply it as rigorously as possible.

MF  You did a proposal for Universal Studio that was not successful, do you find it difficult to work with large corporations that has a long history and an established identity?

BM  I didn’t really work with Universal.  They asked us to consider their identity, but they didn’t commission me to do it. Whenever you are working on someone’s identity it is a very complex and sensitive issue.  People have a connection to their identity, which represents the trade off they made with their own lives.  When people come into my studio their ideals and values are established.  I can disrupt that commitment if I change the identity.  So identity is a very powerful tool.  When I do identity work I try not to care what it is going to look like at the end.  I say to them, it is your identity, not mine.  When I finish the work, I am going back to my studio, but you have to live with it.  I tell you what I think and I will do the best I can, but in the end it’s your identity that’s going out to the world that people will attach to you.  You have to find comfort with it.  I like doing identity work, in a way I can step outside and do anything.

MF  You work closely with your collaborators but you also talk about the need to work for yourself first, like Robert Wilson.  Can you talk about your working process?

BM  I think seriously about my collaborator’s ambitions and positions.  Sometimes when I am working with somebody, the best thing I can do for them is different than what they expect.  I need to do it for myself first.  If I do that I will do the best work I can.  In the end this is more generous than just taking care of them and compromising the work.  The best you can do is to be very tough on yourself, do the best work you can, try to show it to them, and let them into it.  It seems like an arrogant solution of “I don’t care what you think and I am going to do it my way.”  But in fact it is the most generous because you are doing the work for them and doing the best you can.  I try to take that seriously and deal with the problems generated as directly as possible so in the end you really have something you want.

MF  You once said that your least favorite font is Frutiger.  Is Perpetua your favorite?  You use it for you business card and for Zone books.

BM  I guess so.  There is something about Perpetua that is very beautiful.  It emerged out of a great moment in history when Eric Gill was designing the font.  It is a modern typeface but still has a stone cut resonance.   It is an extraordinary piece of work with a character that I love to read -- the right kind of clarity, generosity, crispness, and intelligence without being overly pompous.  It is very hard to know why it has these qualities, but it does.  I try not to let there be a house style in the studio.  For instance we use Frutiger in our project.  I don’t like the font but some people in the studio do.  That’s fine with me.  There is that famous story about Massimo Vingnelli.  His designer will be working with all sorts of typefaces and he will come by their desks and say, “I don’t know, maybe Bodoni.”  I try not to do that.

MF  You created a new font for the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  You seem to want to give the font a sense of movement.

BM  That was an interesting project.  We spent a lot of time working on the identity for that place using existing fonts.  This was about ten years ago.  At that time it wasn’t so easy to make a new font.  We tried all different fonts but couldn’t find one that had the right kind of resonance with Frank’s work; a kind of sympathy without being a caricature.  At some point we realize we are forced to make a new font that would dance with Frank’s work.  It was really through trial and error.  One nice quality is that the font satisfies the ADA requirement.  The regulation is very precise and if you add it all up you get Helvetica.  It’s a horrible piece of legislation.  We were able to work with the ADA requirement and make something that would reveal its charm over time.  We knew people would be coming back repeatedly to see it.  They would see the font while waiting for a concert.  At first glance it would seem very normative, but over time one discovers the quirks and funny attributes.

MF  You have worked with many Canadian artists, such as Gordan Monahan and Michael Snow.  You are also influenced by the Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan.  Do you see yourself as continuing the lineage of the Canadian intellectual?

BM  This is a complex question.  I am an internationalist based in Canada.  If you think about the world physically Canada is an integral place to stand and look at the world.  We look to Europe, United States and Asia.  We are next to the United States, so we are by necessity conscious of every movement.  Pierre Trudeau once said, being next to America is like sleeping with an elephant.  No matter how gentle the beast, you are aware of every twitch and grunt.  As a culture we have produced a lot of commentators, people who look at the world, from Marshall McLuhan to John Kenneth Galbraith to Peter Jennings and list goes on.  There are also a lot comedians, such as Jim Carrey, Lorne Michaels, and Mike Myers.  This is because of the relationship between Canada and United States.  Jonathan Crary once wrote about David Cronenberg’s relationship to Hollywood.  He said Cronenberg can never become part of Hollywood as long as he was in Canada.  He compared the relationship to the termite and the log; he can be inside the log, eat the log, go around the log, but he cannot be the log.  This is really our relationship to the United States.  Canadians have the pleasure of the empire without the responsibility.   We don’t have the burden of real police work.  The world is generally not aware of the relationship between Canada and United States.  We are the two biggest trading partners in the world.  All the brouhaha about Japan and the United States really pale by comparison.

Recently because of the book there has been a lot of comparison to McLuhan.  It is kind of funny.  These people from the McLuhan Center came to me and said it is really like seeing Marshall again.  It is very strange.  I was asked on television, people say you are Marshall McLuhan, what you do think about that, I said, what could be better, I feel like a million bucks.

MF  You end the book with a coda, your work Stress.  Can you talk briefly about it?  Is this the type of work with sound and video that we will see more from you in the future?

BM  I hope so.  I ended the book with Stress which bookends the issue of the global image economy at the front of the book. Stress is a kind of response to develop a kind of economic model.  It is a collaboration with André Lepecki and John Oswald.  It is a really exciting project because you get to develop it out of thin air.  We just invented the whole thing and it was a great experience for the studio and me.  It sort of shows what the studio is capable of generating.  My own feeling is that the work is not quite there yet.  I am not satisfied with the results and there is more inside that project that has yet to come out.  We are doing something like that in Tokyo now for Mori -- an information center.  We call it New Tokyo Life Style Rypongi Think Tank.  It is basically a place you can go to think about urbanism and the future of TokyoTokyo is a very wealthy city per capita, perhaps the wealthiest in the world.  But they are psychologically poor, they feel poor.  Even though there are great pleasures to be found in Tokyo, the quality of life is poor because of the urban forms.  Mr. Mori has a proposed to redevelop Tokyo based a different model that would reduce commuting time by 50 percent and double living space.  You thus increase the quality of life by 400 percent.  So we are making a place where people can go, a book on the subject of the future of Tokyo, and a video installation as a trailer for the project.  This is a really good project, sort of like Stress with many different facets.

The interview was held on January 25, 2001 in New York City.