Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design

Susanna Koeberle
29. October 2018
Media installation in the first room of the exhibition (Installation view © Vitra Design Museum. Photo: Norbert Miguletz)

An exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, reveals the relevance today of the Austrian designer, author, and activist Victor Papanek.

Few people know the name Victor Papanek (1923 - 1998). However, his key work, Design for the Real World (1970), is one of the most widely read books on design and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Although the book was published more than forty years ago, Victor Papanek's thoughts are more relevant today than ever. Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, at the Vitra Design Museum, illustrates why. Who was Victor J. Papanek? What gives the ideas of this design theorist such relevance today? The exhibition attempts to provide answers to these questions with various spatial installations and thematic presentations that shed light on his life and time as well as his influence on students back then and on today's design discourse. The special achievement of the exhibition is the fascinating combination of both the historical and the thematic and making them accessible to groups with varying interests.

"Tetrakaidecahedral" by Victor J. Papanek, 1973-1975, a movable playground structure, designed with a student, parents, teachers and children. (Photo © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation)

A Colorful Character
​In 1939, young Papanek and his mother managed to escape persecution by the National Socialists and settle in the United States. Coming from a middle-class background, he was confronted with different realities in the USA and initially lived in poor conditions. He first pursued a classical career as an industrial designer before developing an attitude critical of consumption in the 1960s. He was certainly not the only one with this stance in a time marked by upheavals, but no one criticized the profession of designer as radically as he did: "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them," for instance, starts the preface to Design for the Real World. Nevertheless, Papanek wanted nothing less than to save the world through design. What did this mean for the discipline of design?

While an immersive media installation first gives an insight into Papanek's world, the next room of the exhibition focuses on his life. Various documents come from his estate, which is held by the Victor J. Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. It includes notebooks, letters, slides, furniture, and books from his library. Pieces from his extensive collection of ethnological objects are also on display. Papanek loved to travel. He also lectured at various universities outside the USA. Teaching and his activity as a mediator were central aspects of his work. This included, for example, the presentation of a TV program about design that was broadcast in the USA.

Papanek filming the WNED-TV Channel 17 program "Design Dimensions" in Buffalo, NY, 1961–1963 (Photo © WNED-TV, courtesy Victor J. Papanek Foundation)

Design Means Responsibility
​Papanek did not understand design merely as the design of products. For him, design was a political tool that could permanently change our thinking and our everyday life. Early on, he focused his reflections on minorities (both in his own country and in the "Third World," as the Global South was called at the time), thus demonstrating that the idea of a norm is actually a fiction. He wondered: "Who's normal here?" The answer: nobody. A banal example: Why don't designers consider little people when designing? Or people with (also temporary) impairments? And so on and so forth. The target group of "minorities" suddenly becomes relative — or non-existent! This is demonstrated in a room where Papanek's main themes are addressed. Here, visitors will for the first time come across present-day exhibits that deal with Papanek’s issues such as the critique of consumerism or do-it-yourself design.

​In particular, the contemporary design discourse with such themes as DIY, user-centered design, co-design, life-cycle design, or customization illustrates the extent to which Papanek's ideas still have an impact. In addition, many problems that were already acute at the time are unfortunately still unsolved. Even worse, they seem to have become even more acute with globalization. Global warming, scarcity of resources, and social injustice force us to change our thinking. This process of change can start with very simple questions: Do I really need this? What happens after an object has been used? Designers may also have to ask themselves uncomfortable questions: Where does the money come from that we want to save the world with?
Design is a big system and means long-running processes, processes that can only be tackled and pushed forward together. Papanek always worked in a team. And, of course, he was also influenced by the work of his contemporaries — though he sometimes arrived at different results. These personalities included architect and designer Richard Buckminster Fuller and the Global Tools group. Upstairs, the last room of the exhibition is dedicated to these processes and the "big picture." Tables with objects give visitors an understanding of different topics. More recent works are also featured here. The wealth of topics can be deepened in workshops, lectures, and discussions accompanying the exhibition. Furthermore, a companion publication provides an opportunity for a more in-depth engagement with the topic. "Design is never mute," said Papanek. The exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum demonstrates this beautifully.

Victor J. Papanek, "Samisen" dining chair series, 1952–1956 (Photo © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation)

Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design is on display at the Vitra Design Museum until 10 March 2019. This review originally appeared as "Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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