Victor Papanek’s Social Design Legacy
Karen Fraser, MA History of Design and Material Culture, reviews a new book that explores pioneering ideas and practices in global social design.
Victor Papanek [1923-1998] was an Austrian-American designer, author and activist who was concerned with design and its social, environmental and ecological consequences. His pioneering attempts to disseminate the word of social design meant he led a peripatetic lifestyle, and as a result he left traces in institutions around the world. Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design is a 400-page catalogue published to accompany the exhibition of the same name held at the Vitra Design Museum from 29 September 2018 to 10 March 2019. The catalogue could be said to animate the archives; it seeks connections amongst the photographs, drawings, documents, and objects that Papanek created or in some way left his mark upon over a career beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the 1990s. Through essays, interviews and a series of provocations offered by contemporary designers, the catalogue aims to answer the question: what is Victor Papanek’s legacy for the twenty-first century?
The front and back covers offer an ambiguous visual introduction. White shapes appear to refer to things in the real world, but it is not immediately clear what those things are. Through five themed sections, it is revealed that some refer to objects designed by his students, some to things he has collected, and others to diagrammatic visualisations made in his notebooks. Further still, one points to a contemporary designed object, the Nike Pro Hijab, which was launched in 2017 and carries functional and symbolic significance for its intended wearers, female Muslim athletes. This inclusion addresses a gap in Papanek’s legacy: for all his merits, he paid little attention to the intersection of design and gender. As curator Amelie Klein notes in the catalogue’s opening essay, there are five contemporary design projects included in the exhibition that expose assumptions about gender, but they stand apart from the works by Papanek and his contemporaries. However, in exposing the Nike Pro Hijab’s potential for becoming a lucrative commodity, the curators link it to an aspect of Papanek’s record that is surer footed, that of his critique of consumerism. Contributor Dr Garnet Hertz identifies that Papanek’s work to ‘shift design from a type of marketing into a type of public service’ is deeply relevant to the late capitalist moment we are in now. As such, the catalogue contextualizes Papanek’s life and career in a way that recognizes its strengths and reckons with its failures.
One aspect of Papanek’s work that offers much to reckon with today is his role with the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), established in 1957 by European and American designers who aimed to professionalise design through the development of international standards and design education across political and economic boundaries. Among its contributions, The University of Brighton Design Archives provided an image of the Ahmedabad Declaration on Industrial Design for Development, presented at the 1979 United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)/ICSID Design for Development Congress. Professor Alison J. Clarke, who is the Papanek Foundation’s current director and who previously taught at the University of Brighton for several years, acknowledges that Papanek’s contribution to the congress reflected the way socially responsible design was thought of at the time, where the Global South provided ‘fresh fodder for design’.
Thoughtful treatment of controversial topics such as this one characterises the catalogue and, as Vitra Design Museum director Dr Mateo Kries writes in his foreword, ensures that Papanek’s significance within the history of design is developed in a manner that is detailed and academically sound. Alongside many contributors who reside globally, two University of Brighton researchers lent their expertise to the exhibition and catalogue: Dr Tania Messell, who drew heavily on the ICSID Archive for her PhD in the School of Humanities, co-supervised by Dr Lesley Whitworth, Design Archives Deputy Curator, and Professor Jeremy Aynsley; and Dr Leah Armstrong, current head of archive at the Papanek Foundation, whose collaborative doctoral project was based in the Design Archives and was supervised by its former director, Professor Catherine Moriarty. These connections reveal some of the local, national and international networks of researchers whose insights made Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design possible.
This catalogue stands solidly on its own and will be of interest to those familiar and unfamiliar with Papanek’s legacy. Students and practitioners of design and its social, political and global history will find many points of connection to make between the complex issues that concerned Papanek and his collaborators and those that confront us today.
This post also appears on the University of Brighton’s History of Art and Design Blog