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A world of change

'Now that we can do anything, what will we do?' Bruce Mau turns that question into a show of technical possibilities and ethical dilemmas facing today's designers.

September 12, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Toronto — "It's not about the world of design. It's about the design of the world."

Fourteen words. Two sentences. One of many advertising slogans tacked up on a big, white bulletin board at Bruce Mau Design Inc. But the brief message says it all about "Massive Change" -- an international traveling exhibition about the power and promise of design, opening Oct. 2 at the Vancouver Art Gallery -- and the creative force behind it.

The show offers a global view of technical possibilities and ethical dilemmas facing today's designers, effectively posing the question: Now that we can do anything, what will we do? It's the latest project of Canadian Bruce Mau, an expansive thinker who launched himself as a graphic designer and evolved into a go-to guy for architects, artists, writers, academics, urban planners, product developers and entrepreneurs.

"My role is to make things and be problematic," says Mau, 44, who is making his first foray into the curatorial field after designing the typeface for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, spearheading a transformation of Toronto's Downsview Park, planning a museum of biodiversity in Panama City with architect Frank Gehry and creating "STRESS," a video installation about the limits of the human body that has traveled to Vienna, Lisbon and Rotterdam, Netherlands.

"How he thinks is what makes him special," Gehry says. "He's a thinking man's designer. He goes beyond the limits of the visual, incorporating the whole gestalt of what we are involved with in our lives, and that enriches the design problem. I love working with him."

The son of a miner, Mau studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto and patched together the beginnings of a career before finding his direction as the designer of Zone, a series of cultural journals known for blending form and content. He's a big man with an open face, warm brown eyes, curly hair and an air of humility born of the belief that he is lucky to be able to follow his passion. His casual demeanor and easy smile belie the intensity of his conviction that design can save the world.

Comfortably dressed in a black shirt, tan trousers and white running shoes, he presides over a hive of activity on the fifth floor of an old brick building where bicycles are parked by the receptionist's desk and the only interior walls are plywood bookshelves and bins of art supplies. On a typical day, about 45 young designers hunker down at simple wood tables equipped with computers and strewn with books and papers.

"The thing that almost everyone is looking for, when they work with us, is clarity," Mau says of the studio, established in 1985. "People most often don't use that word, but in essence what they are looking for is to be a destination in a noisy world, to be recognized, to be pulled out of the background, and that means clarity."

And that's what they get, says Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, who invited Mau to help him plan an expansion, renovation and new identity for the UCLA Hammer Museum. "Bruce has a way of tapping into the most essential issue or possibility for a given design problem. When he hits that core, it allows clients to see themselves with a lucidity that is startling. At the same time, he creates a context with all sorts of things spinning off it."

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Convention defied

As might be expected, "Massive Change" is not a standard design show of objects lined up in galleries. Filling 20,000 square feet of display space on two floors with a series of environments that incorporate video, sound, still photography and images from computers and satellites -- as well as products such as recyclable chairs, self-cleaning glass, genetically modified rice and self-healing plastic -- the exhibition epitomizes the vision of a designer who looks for simplicity in a mass of details.

Walking around the bare-bones conference room of his studio, where models of the show sit on large tables with sawhorse legs, Mau launches into an account of the exhibition's evolution. It began about three years ago when Kathleen Bartels resigned as assistant director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and became director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Determined to upgrade the exhibition program and add a strong component of architecture and design, she immediately thought of Mau, whose 624-page manifesto on contemporary design, "Life Style," had made a big splash in cultural circles.

Bartels and the gallery's senior curator, Bruce Grenville, thought the Vancouver museum needed a manifesto of its own, in the form of an exhibition that would declare a serious commitment to design. "We were captivated by some of the statements in 'Life Style' about the changing nature of design," Grenville says. "We wanted to see if he could show how change is occurring and how it works on a global level."

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