Published on 31.12.2023
Alison J. Clarke, author of Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design (MIT Press 2021), explores the intersection of design, material culture and anthropology. A design historian and trained social anthropologist, she joined the University of Applied Arts Vienna from the Royal College of Art, London to become chair of the department of Design History and Theory and founding director of the Papanek Foundation. Clarke is a regular media broadcaster, curator and international speaker in the field of design.
Sandra Nuut is a curator based in Tallinn working at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design. Nuut’s work includes lecturing, writing, and curatorial projects, including “Uneversum: Rhythms and Spaces” (2023) at the museum or the Dear Friend exhibition and symposium (2022) together with Ott Kagovere at EKA Gallery. Before her appointment at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design in 2022, she worked at the Estonian Academy of Arts (2017–2022) and the New York-based gallery Chamber (2014–2017).
Last autumn EKA Press published the Estonian translation of the legendary publication Design for the Real World (1971) written by Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek. As a widely translated text, it has continued to be read by design students and practitioners around the world since the 1970s. Alison J. Clarke has conducted profound research on the book and its author, and here she will share her knowledge, findings and reflections on the politics and state of design.
Sandra Nuut: I would like to start with your interest in Victor Papanek (1923–1998). You work as the director of the Victor Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, and have extensively researched the work and life of the designer. In 2021, you published the monograph Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World with MIT Press and before that, you were co-curator of the exhibition “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design” 2018–2021 at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. How did you first get acquainted with Papanek?
Alison J. Clarke: I would say that I’m first and foremost a design historian. I did my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in design history, and my PhD is in social anthropology. As undergraduate design history students we read Victor Papanek’s book (Design for the Real World (1971)), but we were a new generation that was critical of this idealism of the 1970s. We thought it was hippie nonsense because somehow we’d been let down by a generation of social utopianism and Papanek somehow exemplified this kind of social naivety. We were living in the brash 80s where design was all about superstar designers like Philippe Starck. Design was important in the 1980s. It had become a political tool of the right, for example, Margaret Thatcher, and was used both in advertising, propaganda and policy. On the other hand, later reading it, the book does preempt what was going to happen in the 1980s. It’s this lost dream that design will have a social purpose. Unfortunately, the kind of horror stories that Papanek describes about commercialism and designers wasting their time creating new, sexy commodities is what happened in the 1980s. I was captivated by what was a kind of anti-book back then. However, Papanek was somehow a cliché by that point and social design was seen as a failed project.
Later I was put in the position of looking after the archive of someone that I’d been quite cynical about earlier. But I quickly became fascinated with him because he was interested in anthropology and material culture. What I appreciated about Papanek’s approach was that it wasn’t about design and style. It was about people and things.
I felt like this was the one book that brought design students and practitioners together across generations. I find students still reading it and saying that it is radical. I think they are fascinated that there was this era in which people did have radical ideas about what design could do that weren’t modernist visions. They were anti-modernist visions with people at the forefront.
SN: I have experienced similarly that students find Papanek’s ideas radical and interesting today when reading his texts.
AJC: The question is what happened. There seemed to be a moment where design had so much capacity to do. Design was not just about capitalism.
SN: Papanek’s design was seen as “ugly” by some. How did he have the courage to develop something different from the mainstream, when design had to be polished and streamlined? How come he was different?
AJC: I think there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, it is important to look at Papanek as a conduit for student activist work during the late 60s and early 70s. A lot of ideas come from his students. When I said I was reluctant to be in control of Papanek’s archive, that’s because the idea of advocating for a white male design theorist or designer was the absolute antithesis of any ambition I ever had as an undergraduate or postgraduate. Our generation was all about getting away from the great white men. If we do not look at Papanek just as an individual man and consider the book Design for the Real World, then we see a clear move away from stylised and streamlined objects. It is all to do with his response as an educator to what he was seeing around him. He was facilitating what his students were advocating.
An interesting thing about writing his biography was seeing how over the 20th century he changed in accordance with what was going on in the design schools around him. That kind of ugly design he became an advocate for is pretty clunky and analogue. That was when design students turned against creating objects and were trying to do something much more complex. In my book (Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World 2021), I write about Finland and how many of his ideas come from the Nordic region and students’ work there.
Another crucial aspect is that Papanek was an Austrian-American emigre. He escaped the Nazi Anschluss in Austria. They left with his mother late in 1939 and he arrived when the New York World’s Fair was on. Imagine going from Nazi Vienna to New York, seeing representations of hero designers in a new democratic capitalist world. I think at the beginning he might have been invested in that dream. But then he started to think about a social alternative to the streamlining and almost certainly based on his experience of shifting from being an affluent bourgeois in Vienna to living in a Jewish youth hostel in New York. Papanek set up his design studio called the Design Clinic in 1942. The fact that it’s called a clinic is very much about him trying to solve problems and his designs don’t attempt to be commercial.
It is fascinating that he did have this vision of a social design because it would have been much easier to go with the flow, work in Raymond Loewy’s office and just do what everyone else around was doing, yet he decided to follow a different trajectory. I guess it was courageous; however, it was informed by the people around him, by the mid-60s and his visits to Finland.
SN: I wonder about Papanek choosing another field instead of becoming a designer. He went to Cooper Union and studied in architecture studios. He was somewhat acquainted with landscape architecture from a very young age. Why did he choose design in the end?
AJC: He was initially drawn to architecture because he followed a trajectory of famous Austrian emigre architects. I would say he chose design because interesting things were happening in that field at that point underpinned by the funding around the Second World War. When he was at Cooper Union Papanek was learning about quite obscure things like camouflage design and other aspects that are explicitly tied to wartime design studies. By the late 1950s, design got a massive funding push from the US government as part of a Cold War initiative. Suddenly industrial design starts to be more complexified. It’s not just about products but about disciplines like creative engineering. Contemporary designers think that the concepts of futuring and critical speculation are relatively recent phenomena but they’re not. This was happening in the Cold War period. The reason he goes into design is that it is becoming a much more innovative area.
SN: What is the connection between Papanek and US politics at the time? What is his involvement in Cold War politics?
AJC: One of Papanek’s first jobs was in Ontario (Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Canada) as a design instructor. He sees an opportunity to create an industrial design programme that is not only about creating medical instruments but has an expanded view of design and involves people thinking critically about future trajectories of health care. However, the programme in Ontario was funded by Cold War initiatives. By the early 1960s, Papanek ended up being invited to Finland along with Buckminster Fuller. These two suddenly appear in a succession of events in the mid-60s. They are being financed to represent a progressive view of US design. There was a Soviet-run youth festival in Helsinki in 1962 and three years later there was a design event with Papanek and Buckminster Fuller.
I have interviewed American visual artists who suddenly found themselves in Finland with full sponsorship because they were being used ideologically within the Cold War discourse. It does not mean they knew where the funding came from. The Finnish, the Scandinavian students that Papanek met, influenced his ideas and he was then promoting them back in the United States. It is complex because a lot of the social design funding came from military sources when he was, for example, at Purdue University. I discovered letters from the US military sponsoring a postgraduate group and some obscure local newspaper clippings that showed that Papanek was also consulting for Dow Chemicals. He was giving lectures in Finland about the horrors of the Vietnam War while he was consulting with Dow Chemicals, where Agent Orange was created. There is a darker side to the story.
Papanek created, for example, a humanitarian inflatable shelter, which could also be used for military purposes. Whereas Buckminster Fuller was very much exposed for his military work in Afghanistan, Papanek managed to retain purity during his lifetime. I did an FBI search and there is a file on Buckminster Fuller but I did not get anything with Papanek. The Dow Chemical’s connection is damaging enough. However, we need to keep in mind that everyone was getting military sponsorship if they worked in experimental design. This notion of social and transdisciplinary design was completely a Cold War project. It was about trying to do what the Soviet powers could not create, a type of design that thought beyond technology and encouraged design students to think in future trajectories and read humanities.
The transdisciplinary map that appears in Papanek’s book is wonderful. It’s part of the big character poster of all those connections, part of the Cold War experimental project.
SN: Here in Estonia we were on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Papanek was going to Moscow and some of his writing was known in the Soviet Union. It seems that at the State Art Institute of the Estonian SSR teachers and students were reading Papanek and designers were openly talking about his influence.
AJC: All of Papanek’s talks were anti-capitalist and anti-design for capitalism. Although the US government sponsored him, he was seen controversially within the United States. He was more popular in Europe. I think the Soviet Union connection was through the International Council for the Society of Industrial Designers. There were lots of connections within this organisation which was founded originally in the Cold War period.
SN: I believe the founder of the department of industrial design Bruno Tomberg was trying to find ways to move forward at the time as they were in a complex context. He had to prepare people for industry as multidisciplinary designers who could do everything with limited resources.
AJC: Design for the Real World was first published in Swedish but I strongly contend that the most important cultural influence was Finland in that book. It would make perfect sense that it worked for Estonia because it is informed by the Nordic discourse around design during that period. The younger generation needed something new.
Finnish design was used politically in world fairs and expositions. It was the younger generation sponsored by Cold War initiatives that were trying to create the vision of a new designer for a new society that was not just capitalist. It is not an American book, even though Papanek was essentially American. It is kind of fascinating where his cultural allegiances were as an emigre.
SN: Papanek paints a dark picture of the design industry in Design for the Real World. Has the design industry or design world changed? Would he speak differently today?
I think it is still an inspirational book to read because he is right in so much of it but you also have to understand it as a historical document. It is about climate change, environmental destruction and the role of design in that. Everything is still completely true and it is written at a time when people are talking about stopping design altogether, like the Italian radicals for example.
Has design changed? Yes, this book is informed by the late Cold War and industrial politics and then it moves into an era where it is about a crisis in post-industrial design: a point at which there isn’t just this linear relationship between objects being made, getting advertised, and people consuming them. When Papanek writes it is the beginning of the dominance of information technologies emerging. Now design is more dispersed, amorphic and you could not write that book. The book has an anchor in something analogue. The idea that you could create a refrigerator and it is going to change the lives of people in an African country is disturbing today because it is very much this development model. Perhaps the attraction of the book is about the moment at which change feels very possible.
Now the book appeals to the idea of circular design and social design. We do need transdisciplinary people and that is what has happened in design schools. My only concern about that expansion is the deskilling element because Papanek was talking at a time when designers did have skills and programmes that skilled them.
SN: Does the Papanek Foundation keep a record of how many translations there are of the Design for the Real World?
AJC: Indeed, the latest new editions are going to be in Czech, French, Italian, Russian, Korean, Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Croatian, and simplified Chinese. There are two Chinese versions. People still want to read some slightly eccentric cranky design theorist. I think that says everything, not that nothing has changed and nobody has come up with a polemic. There is a new generation reading Papanek in their native language.