Victor Papenek (1923-1998) was one of the most influential design theoreticians of the twentieth century. A critic of the profligate commercialism and material waste of post-war America, his ideas resonate with contemporary drives for sustainability in design. His arguments for inclusive design, attuned to the needs of marginalised members of society, show Papenek's deep understanding of design's social obligations. Curated by the Vitra Design Museum, ‘The Politics of Design’ represents Papenek's first major retrospective and 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 addressing what he saw as the gulf between designing for commercial gain and social needs. In 1946 Papenek established his own company, Design Clinic and began producing low-cost furniture. He later gained popular recognition by presenting the television program 'Design Dimensions', which aired from 1961-1963. This program helped Papenek to refine his rhetorical skills while addressing common misconceptions about design.
In the 1960s Papenek began collaborating with the celebrated inventor, engineer, and humanist Buckminster Fuller. Both men frequently spoke at the same conferences, appealing to alternative notions of design's wider importance for society. Papenek´s criticism of corporate and military exploitation connected with a generation of young people increasingly disenchanted by the injustices of the socio-political status quo. Collaborating with students and other participants allowed Papenek to realise 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, indicated the growing recognition of his approach to design.
Papenek's enduring reputation was established with his 1971 publication 'Design for the Real World'. Now acknowledged as one of the most widely read works on this subject, the book has been translated into over 20 languages. In this work, Papanek urges design to address rife societal inequalities, the requirements of developing countries and the global south, and the needs of those marginalised by mainstream society. Papanek's concern for durability and rehabilitation anticipated later arguments in favour of sustainability while presenting 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 drawings for Foster Associates’ Special Care Unit, lent to the exhibition, demonstrate the connection between Norman Foster´s design philosophy and that of Papenek. Changing attitudes towards educational best practices for disabled children and changing legislation formed the impetus behind the Special Care Unit. The Special Care Unit was devised as a series of components which required minimal assemblage and was decidedly experimental. It was planned to have three component parts characterised by a bright orange, yellow, and pink colour palette: a public reception area, an area for amenity facilities and a teaching area with an outdoor playground. Careful research and visual studies undertaken by Foster Associates made clear the inadequacy and piecemeal nature of existing provisions. Previously marginalised and ignored, this project aimed 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 was on view from 28 September 2018 - 10 March 2019 at the Vitra Design Museum and is currently on display from 31 October 2019 - 02 February 2020 at the Design Museum of Barcelona.