Bruce Mau relishes problems. He may be best known for his graphic design of books and other publications, but don’t call Mau a graphic designer. Viewing design in far broader terms, Mau has collaborated with architects, filmmakers, and performance artists, and has designed videos, exhibitions, and graphic identities for buildings and companies. Since 1985 he has had a studio in Toronto, Bruce Mau Design, and has been design director of Zone Books. He was creative director of I.D. magazine from 1991 to 1993. With Rem Koolhaas, Mau designed S,M,L,XL and is currently working on the Seattle Public Library and an urban park in Toronto. With Frank O. Gehry, Mau developed the environmental graphics for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, now under construction in Los Angeles. For the UCLA Hammer Museum [RECORD, June 2001], Mau is creating an identity for a building by architect Michael Maltzan. A book of Mau’s own work, Life Style [December 2000], was recently published. Mau spoke with Record about Life Style, collaborations, and the New York Times building that could have been.
Architectural Record: After producing books and publications for other people, what did you have in mind for your own book, Life Style?
Bruce Mau: I wanted to respond to the general design culture evolving around us. In my studio, we see our work evolving in response to that context, and we realize that in order to produce work in that context, we need to get a handle on what exactly the context is.
Our audience is people who work in the realm of the image. That is a pretty broad spectrum these days because it includes people who work not only in acknowledged realms, like design or architecture or publishing, but also in business.
With the imagery and text, there are multiple layers of information in Life Style.
Yes, there’s a kind of dance that happens between the two. In publishing, obviously, there’s a certain kind of precision needed in the text that’s quite different from what’s required for the image.
What lessons from the production of S,M,L,XL, which was more than 1,400 pages, informed your work in Life Style, which was more than 600 pages?
There were a lot of lessons. One is that as you scale an object up in terms of its sheer volume, it’s not a linear progression in terms of its complexity. It actually gets very complex very quickly in a certain way because, at a certain number of pages, a change is not just a change—it’s something that has to ripple through everything.
With Life Style, it’s actually taken to another level. It’s really conceived as a kind of multi-track recording, where there are three different tracks of material in a composition conceived from the outside as a shape itself. [The three tracks] in Life Style are life theories, life projects, and life stories, and those are each broken out into text and image.
In general terms, how is the design of publications evolving?
Today, it’s all about the image and using a kind of cinematic cadence, and introducing a whole different book culture. It’s a kind of hybridized product because culture, in a way, is subject to Darwinism too. If a magazine were about to be eliminated as a product, it would be because it wasn’t very effective. But, on the contrary, it’s a very efficient product.
You also work with architects. What is interesting in your collaborations with architects is that the role of the graphic designer is really changing. Now you’re being brought on at the very beginning of projects. How does that affect your role?
The people we collaborate with are often adventurous in many ways. For instance, when I started working on the Seattle library with Rem, I asked him, "Do you want me to do signage, or do you want me to think about the project?" He said, "I want you to think about the project." [Rem] has systematically worked to break down those boundaries.
All of the processes of creative production that use the image as a kind of modus operandi are being transformed. They’re under pressures in many ways. A lot of the things that are sort of unsatisfactory in the world are those where there hasn’t been a synthesis across disciplines. So we need to develop methods that are cross-disciplinary in order to deal with issues like the workplace, and all sorts of things around the way that we work and live. Like the category of graphic designer—I’ve sort of dropped the word graphic from my own title.
But that is your background and training.
Yes, that’s really how I started. But it’s such a limiting qualifier that I’ve just decided to be a designer and to invest in the word designer and disinvest in graphic. The reason that we are what we are is that we use communication design technique to explore ideas. Whether they’re spatial, organizational, typographic, formal, or business ideas, we use communication technique to think about those problems and communicate them in a new way. And that allows us, in a way, to invent things that other people are unable to.