Design is more than just the creation of a physical object. Design is a process that ideally makes our world a little bit better. Today this idea seems perfectly normal, but it owes much to the influence of Victor Papanek. Now on display at the Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition ‘Victor Papanek – The Politics Of Design’ presents the work and legacy of a man who was more than just a designer. A text by Jochen Overbeck.‘Be it an automobile jack or space station, it has to work, and work optimally at that.’ Victor Papanek wrote this statement for a 1968 essay in the magazine of the Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO), and subsequently included a slightly modified version in Design for the Real World, the book that established Papanek’s reputation as one of the most important designers of the twentieth century. The statement may seem like a platitude, but it isn’t. First of all, each of us has encountered products that do not last long. The electric kettle whose handle breaks off after just one year. The cell phone cable that doesn’t charge anymore. Even more consequential is the fact that design so often fails to meet human needs. The mug with a handle so small you cannot even hold it. The plastic packaging that can only be opened with brute force. The airplane seat which is an instrument of torture for anyone over 1.75 metres in height. Papanek penned another statement that also comes to mind here: ‘There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.’
As the first major retrospective on the Austrian-American designer, ‘Victor Papanek – The Politics Of Design’ is sure to elicit one thing during its run at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein: a lively and provocative discourse about a profession that is all too often misunderstood and too seldom challenged.Victor Papanek was born in Vienna in 1923. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States and obtained U.S. citizenship in the 1940s. After completing high school, he studied architecture and design and then worked for several years in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1946, he founded his own company, the Design Clinic, and created small furnishings that reflect the spirit of the times but are still compelling today – such as the Carry About Table, a small side table with a central handle for lifting, the striking Samisen Chair or the Hearth Group, a complete interior for a small apartment. The main target group for these early works: small families and soldiers returning from the war.
4 - 9.However, Papanek’s idea of what design should achieve quickly changed, partly due to the influence of his contemporaries. In 1951, Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride was published, in which the media theorist examined the effects of advertising and entertainment on the populace. The architect Richard Neutra, like Papanek an immigrant from Vienna, formulated a holistic design approach three years later in his book Survival Through Design. In the same year Papanek met Richard Buckminster Fuller, who became a role model as well as a friend. Soon Papanek, too, began teaching.
Papanek’s design approach, which had always combined a certain smartness with more practical considerations, increasingly took on a theoretical foundation. In a 1957 essay, he wrote that a designer must be a ‘communicator and diplomat’. Starting in 1961, he moderated the television programme ‘Design Dimension’, for which he drafted a series of clear tenets, such as ‘A Designer Appreciates Nature’ or ‘A Designer Uses Technology’. Papanek’s work from that period reflects this shifting emphasis. At North Carolina State College, he and his students developed one of the first humanitarian aid tents, followed by such things as play equipment for children with cerebral palsy and a handicapped-accessible taxi. The internationally recognised wheelchair icon was created in one of Papanek’s university courses. He became a pioneer of what is now known as ‘social design’. Incidentally, such work can be quite fun: the tent-like play tunnel found in children’s rooms all over the world is another Papanek design.
In the exhibition, these details are not only traced in a timeline, but also put in the context of their respective era. We see Papanek’s own sketches, posters and books – with the bestseller Design for the Real World in all its translations taking centre stage in one room, where visitors can even leaf through some of the editions – as well as the work of his contemporaries. The latter include McLuhan or Ralph Nader, who plunged the American auto industry into a crisis in 1965 with his seminal work "Unsafe At Any Speed". Design objects are presented in a similar manner. Initially focused on Papanek, the exhibition’s perspective broadens as visitors move from one gallery to the next, zooming in on the surrounding context.By the time viewers reach the upper level of the museum, which features a large installation by the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno, they have firmly arrived in the present, with one foot extended toward the future. Here the exhibition curators expand the concept of design, applying Papanek’s thoughts to contemporary problems. ‘Can technology save us?’ reads one question, illustrated by a project in Syria under the auspices of the Forensic Architecture research agency. The group reconstructs war crimes with the aid of witness statements, videos and images from social media, generating evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice. Fernando Laposse hews more closely to the traditional design concept: his project ‘Totomoxtle’ salvages heirloom varieties of Mexican maize. A group of Mexican restaurant chefs is involved in the project, but the main protagonists are local women who dry and smooth the husks of the plants before processing them into a veneer-like material. This is design that does no harm. On the contrary. This is design that serves the common good – and a perfect example of Papanek’s ideals.