Where Canadian designer Bruce Mau is concerned, I would have to describe myself as a troubled admirer. I have written about him off and on since 1990 when I selected him as a designer to watch in the decade ahead in a feature for Blueprint magazine. Mau didn't disappoint. S,M,L,XL (1995) was a breathtaking statement of designer ambition and Mau's cover credit, on equal terms with super-hip architect Rem Koolhaas, was one of the design coups of the decade. Mau has a masterly way of accruing cultural capital, by making high-level alliances with architects and intellectuals, and this took him to another level. By the time his own book, Life Style, also a whopper, appeared in 2000 he had constructed a formidable mystique around himself as a designer whose concerns and apparent brain power put him in a different league from most other visual communicators.
I read the book carefully, but I didn't much care for it. I found Mau's statements about the condition of contemporary capitalism and the image world in which he operates to be frustratingly unfocused. He was writing, after all, at a time when many were becoming much more outspoken about what ails us. Where did he really stand: was he opponent or collaborator? It was the way he chose to present himself, though, through the medium of design, that rankled most. The book was needlessly massive and it came in a choice of eight ostentatious satin covers. Before it was anything else, it was a designer fetish object, a coffee-table lifestyle accessory that screamed "Look at me!" more insistently than any design book to date. There is a simple word for this kind of over-emphatic publicity-seeking - hype - and it didn't sit well with the book's claims to intellectual seriousness. It worked, though. Time magazine listed it as a design of the year.
Mau came to London to tell us about the book. He did five events in a week. I attended the one that seemed most likely to take the discussion in unexpected directions, a conversation between Mau and Richard Hamilton, an artist he rightly admires, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Again, it was a status-boosting coup for Mau. Hamilton is one of Britain's greatest living artists, an intellectual whose interpretations of visual culture, beginning in the 1950s, were hugely original, perceptive and influential. Before the conversation we had come to see could begin, however, Hamilton had to sit there for half an hour, while Mau did an illustrated spiel based on his book (the artist, needless to say, did not present a slide show of his own work). After that, the discussion never really took off. Mau was over-earnest. Hamilton was wryly amused. John Warwicker of Tomato asked a pointed question about why Mau's designs always ended up looking so conventional.
This is not an aspect of Mau's work that especially bothers me. He is adept at making potentially dry and daunting academic subject matter look exciting and this is an achievement. His typography is seductively elegant. He places and sequences images with illuminating skill. His visual intelligence suggests that he is truly at home with this material. Mau is a fine designer, but I can't see him, in aesthetic terms, as a remarkable designer, though his clients and supporters, people whose knowledge of graphic design is perhaps limited, clearly believe that he is. The first issue Mau designed for the Victoria & Albert Museum's new quarterly magazine is classy but routine institutional design, yet he is once again presented as a figure of interest in his own right. One feature is a conversation between Mau and his old friend and collaborator, Frank Gehry.
Now it may be that all of this self-positioning has come about by accident, but this seems unlikely. It has the air of great calculation and it would be surprising if someone as smart as Mau presents himself to be had not thought carefully about the best strategies to achieve status and the freedom to pursue his own ends. What Mau transmits far more effectively than most designers, including other famous colleagues, is an aura of power. Quite apart from anything that he may be able to offer as a designer, it is this that makes him persuasive, convincing and attractive to other people, such as superstar architects, who enjoy a level of worldly power and influence far beyond the imaginings of most graphic designers. If you consult Robert Greene's book, The 48 Laws of Power, you find that Mau, unconsciously or not, does many of the things that the author argues are essential to the attainment and successful retention of power. Here are just a few: Law 6: Court attention at all costs. Law 27: Play on people's need to believe to create a cult-like following. Law 35: Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one. Law 37: Create compelling spectacles. Law 45: Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once.
Indeed "change" has become Mau's big theme. His ambitions are increasingly interdisciplinary. He employs a much broader range of talents on his staff than is usual in graphic design. In 2003, he started the Institute without Boundaries, a one-year educational project based in his Toronto studio. The first intake had backgrounds in journalism, psychology, science, publishing, communications and architecture, as well as design, and they lent their skills to a project that Mau calls, with his usual flair for understatement, "Massive Change". One outcome was a weekly radio programme; another a series of posters making such promises as "we will design intelligence into material, and liberate form from matter". (Law 48: Assume formlessness.) Mau's avowed desire to provide the world with food, health and unlimited supplies of energy suggests nothing so much as a new claimant to Buckminster Fuller's crown. A visit to the "Massive Change" website confirms the vast sweep of the project, which seeks to address design's capacity to plan and produce outcomes, and transform every aspect of daily life. The project will generate another big book and an exhibition that will open in Vancouver in June 2004, before travelling. A feature film is also planned, as well as an online forum and a series of public events.
Delusions of grandeur? (Law 32: Play to people's fantasies.) Or a public-spirited, visionary, grand project? (Law 23: Concentrate your forces.) The website, with sections about urbanism, transportation, manufacturing, energy and materials, is certainly impressive. Few designers would dream of initiating a project this wide-ranging, and fewer still could pull off even the early stages with this degree of conviction. The pursuit of power is never very edifying. It's often impossible to disentangle self-interest from the positive outcomes that the possession of power makes possible. That's just the way it is. Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish.