Design thinking. Eco-design. Sustainable architecture. Green design. We tend to think of these concepts and disciplines as new and contemporary, a response to the world’s climate crisis and uncontrolled industrialization. However, there was a designer, academic and activist who put these ideas on the table as early as the 1960s. Victor Papanek (1923-1998) remains a relative unknown — few people, even those within the design world, know much about him. The Barcelona Design Museum (Museu de Disseny) aims to put this right with The Politics of Design, the first retrospective that focuses on Papanek’s work and groundbreaking views.
These days, ‘design’ tends to conjure up sleek and shiny objects, sofas, kitchens (and even lifestyles) conceived by creatives who have their own personal brand and whose fame can reach rock-star status. Papanek, who fled to the United States from the Nazi regime in Vienna in 1939, took a far more holistic approach. For him and many of his followers and students, design had an obligation to help society’s most vulnerable: children, the poor, communities in developing countries, and people with disabilities.
Although he started off in the United States creating low-cost domestic furniture (including the iconic Samisen dining chair on display at the exhibition) for the rising middle class, his real impact was as a writer and teacher, where he exposed his criticism of mass consumerism and technology, and advocacy of design with a social impact in the era of the Vietnam war, student sit-ins, segregation, and the hippie movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, as he travelled the international university circuit giving lectures and appearing on TV shows, he garnered a global following of young students who believed that ‘another world is possible’ though design. Many of them went on to conceive objects that have contributed to our universal design language, such as Finnish designer Jorma Vennola’s innovative and tactile children’s puzzles and toys.
Susanne Koefood, also a student of Papanek’s – developed the International Symbol of Access, the instantly recognizable sign that since 1968 has elegantly denoted loos, buildings, and lifts as wheelchair-friendly.
Given this context, and Papanek’s own lack of ‘material’ output, the Politics of Design exhibition is mainly composed of film snippets, lecture notes, posters, working documents, and published books (including his ‘Design for a Real World,’ one of the best selling design books of all time). Taking them all in requires some investment of time and attention. Each of the four exhibition rooms focuses on a major theme of his life and work. For those with limited time, the final two rooms are the easiest to digest and provide a good overview of his impact on design.
Exhibition Room 3
‘Is Anyone Here Normal?’ places the work of Papanek and his protégées in simple pinewood workstations, a design that first came to light in his book ‘Nomadic Furniture.’ – a manifesto for the hippie ‘DIY’ movement. Objects such as Papanek’s movable playground structure and radio transmitter formed by tinned cans and burning candles were pioneers in using recycled materials and an enlightened approach to design for kids that took into account their development cycles and handicaps. Other workstations display more recent design hacks, such as Thomas Thwaites celebrated toaster that trims down the appliance’s composition of 100 different materials to five without losing functionality.
Exhibition Room 4
‘The Bigger Picture’ focuses on Papanek’s theory of connectivity and the power of collaboration, with displays from contemporary design collectives driven by social change. Particularly impactful is the work of the research group Forensic Architecture, who with 3D modelling, AI and photography, reconstruct war zone environments, which are used as evidence in war crime and human rights violation trials.
‘Everything is political,’ the saying goes. Victor Papanek understood this more than most. While the idea that design went beyond giving form for something was radical for Papanek’s time, is it now generally accepted that design can also be a tool for doing good. And for this he deserves our thanks.
The Politics of Design exhibition runs until February 2, 2020 on Floor B of the Museu de Disseny de Barcelona. General admission: 6 euros.
Guest Author: Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Suzanne Wales landed in Barcelona in 1992, that pivotal Olympic year when the city changed forever. Since then, she has worked as a writer mainly covering the creative scene, for magazines such as Dwell, Frame, Metropolis and Wallpaper. She lives in Horta, with her daughter, dog and cat, while trying to finally cultivate a vegetable garden.