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Design Credo: Basically Mau

In Bruce Mau's book, work and even his office, the creator's identity is as important as the creation.


For Bruce Mau, design is not just decorative; style is not just superficial. His new book, "Life Style" from Phaidon Press, presents both key projects undertaken by his 15-year-old company, the Toronto-based Bruce Mau Design--BMD--and his working manifesto on modern culture and design.

"I set up the studio around this idea that we allow the work to change us," says Mau, who prefers to hire architects over designers for his firm. "So that when we work we have a full-fledged experience and not the kind of limited, reduced, commodified experience. I wanted to make it a big, messy, difficult thing and let that kind of life experience make you grow."

The book is a kind of big, messy, difficult thing itself--a sprawling 624 pages of illustration and text in a variety of sizes and fonts. Copies have been selling like hot cakes from the arts section of bookstores, and the first printing has nearly sold out.

These days, Mau, 41, has been spending an increasing amount of time in Los Angeles; on one recent day, he borrowed an office at the UCLA Hammer Museum, the institution formerly known as the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. Thanks to BMD, the museum has now simplified its name, as well as its graphic look. The museum is one of his clients, and he is working on an identity make-over, coordinated with a concurrent architectural renovation by Michael Maltzan that is just beginning. Mau also will lecture at the Hammer on Sunday.

With dark, loosely curled hair, Mau is a hefty man who speaks slowly, with a mixture of offhandedness and gravity. His comments seem at once vague in their generalities and illuminating in their overviews.

Mau, son of a miner in Sudbury, Canada, realized with a start during his last year in high school that he wanted to study art. After a year of special preparatory study, he managed to get into the Ontario College of Art and Design but stayed only two years. To get his first job as a designer, he spent a month creating designs for posters, products, anything he could think of, and presented them to his potential employer, Fifty Fingers, one of Toronto's hot young design studios--and he got the job. Later, after a stint in London for Pentagram Design Inc., a large international firm, he returned to Canada to co-found a small firm, the Public Good.

The year 1985 proved a watershed for Mau; he established his own company and began designing Zone, a series of high-toned cultural journals published by New York's Urzone, which became recognized as a model of form meshing with content. The dark blue cover of the issue Zone 1/2 showed what appeared to be a digitized design (actually made in a low-tech way and retouched by hand), with the word "zone" perforated across the top.

"Zone was a major step for a number of reasons," Mau explains. "One, it allowed me to do projects of a certain complexity that could benefit from the kind of thinking I was doing. Second, it was international, so it put our work in front of a very select group of people. Third, they were very adventurous, and they didn't see design as separate from their project."

He also designed their books, which included titles by such heavy European thinkers as Georges Bataille and Henri Bergson. Since Mau began with Urzone publications from ground zero, he was able to establish a unified look for them. He observes, "I really cut my teeth there on identity projects."

Mau now divides his time between prestigious nonprofits such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the occasional commercial gig, such as a design for a Swatch watch. From 1991 to 1993, Mau served as creative director for I.D., the international design magazine.

Mau's best known works, however, are his books. He collaborated with architect Rem Koolhaas on "S,M,L,XL," published in 1988 by the Monacelli Press, a heavily illustrated treatise on Koolhaas' theory and designs.

"Life Style," released late last year, is Mau's alone. A somewhat rambling meditation on globalism, information technology and pop culture, it also documents key projects created by his studio. As a playful marketing conceit, the book is available in eight fabric covers, ready to accommodate the decor of any living room.

While Mau shrugs off the "design guru" reputation, the tenets listed under a section of the book labeled "An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" read a bit guru-like. For example, item one says, "Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it." For Mau, this is key; he prefers highly collaborative projects in which his team gets to shape the thinking that goes into the final product. He is clear about the bottom line, though--profit is one of the "Four Ps" by which he runs his office. The others are People, Project, and Plate (as in "How much do we have on our plate?").

Mau's had a longtime presence in L.A. For more than 11 years, he has been designing the half-dozen scholarly publications issued annually by the Getty Research Institute. He is also working with Frank Gehry on the Walt Disney Concert Hall as well as the Hammer project.

"Today's museum is part entertainment, part discourse and part archive, so it ends up with a very complex set of requirements," Mau observes. "Our work is to help them express who they are and what they aspire to, and to express it in a contemporary language."

Bruce Mau will speak at 3 p.m. Sunday at the UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 443-7000. Free.

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