Victor Papenek (1923-1998) was one of the most influential design theoreticians of the twentieth century. A critic of the material waste and profligate commercialism of post-war America, his ideas resonate with contemporary drives for sustainability in design. His arguments for inclusive design, which respects the needs of the marginalised in society, show Papenek's deep understanding of design's social obligations. Curated by the Vitra Design Museum, his exhibition, Papenek's first major retrospective, includes items from today's leading designers illustrating the enduring importance of Papenek's influence. The Norman Foster Foundation was delighted to collaborate by lending several drawings from the Norman Foster Foundation Archive.
Arriving in New York in 1939 at the time of the World´s Fair, Papenek brought with him the experience of enlightened, socially progressive architectural projects of his native Vienna. He began to work for the leading industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, where he saw the gulf between designing for commercial gain and the social needs which good design could address. In 1946 Papenek established in own company, Design Clinic, and began producing low-cost furniture. He gained popular prominence through presenting a television series 'Design Dimensions', which aired from 1961-1963. This helped refine Papenek´s rhetorical skills and systematic argument, while at the same time exposing then commonly held fallacies of consumer-led design.
In the 1960s Papenek began collaborating with the celebrated maverick, Buckminster Fuller. Both men frequently spoke at the same conferences, appealing to an alternative notions of design's wider importance for human society. Papenek´s direct language, and explicit criticism of corporate and military exploitation and spoke to a rising generation disaffected with the injustices of the socio-political status quo. Collaborating with students and event participants allowed Papenek to realise new, inclusive designs such as the CP-1 Cube; a learning environment for children afflicted with celebral palsy. Papanek´s appointment in 1971 as Dean of the Design Faculty at the California Institute of Arts, an institution at the forefront of progressive art and design, indicates the growing recognition of his approach to design.
Papenek's enduring reputation was established by his 1971 publication 'Design for the Real World'. Now acknowledged as one of the most widely read works on this subject, it has been translated into over 20 languages. His argument stated the deep need for design to address the inequalities rife at the time of writing, the need to consider the requirements of the "Third World" and those marginalised by mainstream society. Concerns for durability and renewal anticipated later arguments in favour of sustainability, were revolutionary at the time, and he presented the designer as a mediator for change. As a polemicist, Papenek's writing is direct and acerbic, deploying humour to illustrate his argument, and it proved a formative influence on contemporary debates around design.
The affinity Norman Foster´s design approach has with Papenek´s arguments is demonstrated by his Special Care Unit, Hackney. This was generated by changing attitudes towards disabled children and new legislation regarding educational provisions for them. The unit was devised as a series of components which required minimal assemblage and was consciously experimental. It was planned to have three component parts: a public reception area, an area for amenity facilities and a teaching area with outdoor playground. Careful studies undertaken by the practice team made clear the inadequacy and piecemeal nature of existing provisions. The Unit´s interior was brightly coloured (orange, yellow and pink). Previously marginalised and ignored, this project strove to provide a facility which would actively enhance the children´s experience of education and positively contribute to their development.
Victor Papenek: The Politics of Design runs until 10 March 2019 in the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany.
In an early painting, this acrylic on canvas entitled Dock Reflection of 1971, Johnson gives oblique view of the Fred Olsen Amenity Centre in London’s Docklands. Completed in 1970, the use of a full-height glass curtain wall for industrial buildings was almost unprecedented. Drawing upon technological advances pioneered in America, the panes were sealed with neoprene gaskets and supported internally by an aluminium frame. The geometric regularity of the hairline fixings establishes a rhythm of perspectival recession. This contrasts with the precisely recorded reflections of the quayside, where straight lines become undulated and distorted. As this building was demolished in 1988, such a permanent record of its visual appearance is all the more poignant.
Johnson´s painting of IBM’s Pilot Head Office at Cosham records another structure which is now lost. His image was based upon a photograph by Richard Einzig, a leading photographer of Foster´s work. Commissioned by Foster himself in 1974, its title Neoprene Gasket Supporting Curtain Wall Reflection celebrates the technical advances neoprene made available. With minimal fixings between each pane of glass, the curtain wall seems weightless, dissolving the boundary between interior and exterior space. The bronze amber tint of the solar-reflective glass deepens and enhances the hues of the reflected landscape.
For the Renault Distribution Centre, Johnson scouted the building and recorded his responses to its structural incidents with the camera. He used these photographs as the basis for screenprints, and this acrylic on canvas. The visual emphasis is one of the articulation of structural components. Prominence is given to the ‘umbrella’; the module unit Foster devised to enable the building to be flexibly adaptable for future expansion, which drew inspiration from agricultural structures. The vibrant palette of primary colours makes a sharp contrast between structure and setting. Perforated beams mark out bold diagonal axes across the composition, with the cables further delineating volume. Standing at the building's perimeter, the ’umbrella’ is foregrounded against the grey wall panels.
Johnson´s 2006 Tokyo Pool records the interior of one of the amenity spaces within the Century Tower, Tokyo. Constructed as speculative offices, the building’s aim was to unify the aesthetics of east and west; a goal realised in part through the prominent use of water. Here, the catenary curve of the glazed roof is mirrored on the pool’s unbroken surface. The light is filtered through perforated louvers echoing those of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts and, combined with the single-point perspective, draws the eye into the illusionistic depth of the space. The contrast between the roof and its shadow amplifies the volume, while the whole interior presents an impression of serene tranquillity.