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There’s something undeniably cinematic about designer Bruce Mau. Many things, actually: his work, his bearing, his personality. A creative with limitless imagination, boundless optimism, and the confidence—in himself and others—to say, “I don’t know; let’s find out together,” Mau is at once familiar and one-of-a-kind.

Mau entered pop culture with the doorstop of a book S, M, L, XL, his 1995 collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas. Its title could be shorthand for Mau’s professional trajectory. His practice began with designing books (S); ballooned to rebrands for the likes of Coca-Cola (M); grew to creating a 1,000-year speculative plan to redesign the city of Mecca (L); and now, through his Massive Change Network, is focused on nothing less than solving the world’s many existential crises (XL). Woven throughout is the story of someone who designed for himself an artistic life radically different from the toxic one he was born into.

Mau, 62, is an irresistible subject for a documentary, and Benji and Jono Bergmann’s MAU is as good as documentaries like this get. The film premiered at the 2021 Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York, has been screened around the country, and is now available to stream on most major platforms. At 78 minutes, it’s tight and thorough, weaving Mau’s story through specific projects. Mau tells RECORD that he knew Benji Bergmann through a project with the United Nations, where Benji worked in communications; he then met Jono; and realized he liked the brothers enough to entrust his story to them. No small thing.

“You're putting your story in the hands of someone else,” Mau says. “As a designer, I’m a control freak—that’s my job description. It’s strange to let go.”

Throughout MAU, we see the designer at work in archival interviews, b-roll footage, and past lectures. When present-day Mau pops up to narrate or respond to questions or events, there’s little daylight between the two versions—and not just because Mau is seen flinging a slinky both then and now. Throughout, he is candid about what needs to change, optimistic about our capacity to redesign the world, and expansive in his vision for this work. “If you want specific outcomes in your life, you’re a designer,” as he puts it in the film. 

It’s a marked difference from other films that create a perception of exclusivity by focusing more on the products designers conceive and the celebrity it brings them. “Almost all films about artists I find really terrible,” Mau says. “For me, they’re not convincing in actually understanding how artists live.”

Mau poster

The post for MAU. Image courtesy BABKA Productions

The Bergmanns buck the convention in part by leaning hard into Mau’s upbringing in Sudbury, a small nickel-mining town in Ontario. They show us clips of the town from the 1960s, when Mau was a boy—a gray and barren wasteland that looks more like the moon than Earth. (Indeed, NASA sent astronauts there to train for lunar missions.) We learn about Mau’s “wild” childhood with an alcoholic father in a combustible household. That world was all Mau knew until he saw TV reports from Expo 67 in Montreal, an event that might as well have taken place in another universe but all the same set him on his path to becoming a designer. “I saw a new life. I saw this extraordinary world and wanted to be part of it,” he recalls in the film. We meet friends and collaborators who all testify to Mau’s single-minded determination to leave his old life behind.

The road out was acceptance to the Ontario College of Art—where Mau spent all of 18 months before dropping out. Too prescribed, too narrow for his creative impulse. He then headed to London and a two-year stint with Pentagram, an experience he describes in the film as “deeply disappointing.” Too corporate, not enough room for his creativity to expand. “It felt like I was building a cage I was going to have to live in,” as he puts it. He decided, instead, to build his own studio to work on projects to improve the world. “I just don’t care about your stupid disciplines,” he says. “I don’t care about those boundaries.” As artist and friend James Lahey puts it, “He had a lot of gas in the tank.”

Even more potent is the time we spend with Mau as he revisits the place he once thought of as a “valley coated in Vaseline,” where if he returned to his old life he'd slide back down and never reemerge. The Bergmanns take him to his old house, now abandoned, and film him taking stock of what’s there, the life he left behind, and the one he made for himself. It’s a powerful moment we don’t often get in films like this, which tend to smooth over rough edges in pursuit of slick hagiography.

It’s also key to the narrative that MAU builds of a designer who rejects defeatism to imagine better outcomes, not just for himself but also for the global community. What began as a career in book and typographic design has evolved into one where his Chicago-based Massive Change Network, through its Massive Action project, is considering how to redesign communications, sustainability, even democracy. It’s all built around the MC24 design principles, which help frame the film and include such maxims as “Begin with fact-based optimism,” “Think forever design for perpetuity,” and “We are not separate from or above nature.”

Massive Change exhibition

Mau's "Massive Change" exhibition premiered at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004. Photo courtesy Bruce Mau Design

This process begins with identification of a problem—hardly a challenge in today’s world. One that came up in my conversation with Mau was plastic recycling, a good idea that, in practice, “is a fiction, mostly,” he says, because so much of the material ends up in single-use products. Step two is to ask: What’s the solution—not just for tomorrow but for decades and even centuries into the future? It’s a hard question because the answer lies not in quick changes but large, systemic cultural shifts that are difficult to effect. “The real solution is a different way of living,” he says. And that leads to the third, and most challenging, step: redesigning the world to attain the desired outcome. Through the Massive Change Network, Mau creates the space for intense and results-driven design collaboration, be it with individual artists, students at the Institute without Boundaries (a program at George Brown College that Mau helped found), or officials in national governments.

“What we’re realizing in our Massive Action project is that so much of it is about consciousness,” Mau tells RECORD. “We’ve made so many kinds of toys and baubles that take us away from awareness of reality and engagement in reality. We can design the reality we want; we can design the outcomes we want.”

It’s a message that feels particularly necessary at this moment, when so many things seem to be off the skids. MAU is an excellent vehicle for such a corrective. And so is Bruce Mau himself, who, if you edge toward that Vaseline-coated valley of despair, will quickly rattle off everything that has gone right, from the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines to the elimination of smallpox to massive increases in global literacy. 

“It’s the greatest time in the history of mankind,” he says. “Somehow, we have to wake up to the possibility of our time, stop complaining, stop with the cynicism, and embrace the possibility.”