When nearly everyone agrees on any given proposition, there's certain to be a flaw in it. Most of the people who write on design and related matters have decided that Bruce Mau, the Toronto graphic artist, has vital things to say about mass society, consumerism and the way we live. This view of him as a thinker began appearing last spring, after journalists saw a large-scale art work called STRESS, which he did for a festival in Vienna; its main point was that contemporary society is pretty damn stressful. Last autumn his status as philosopher was heightened by the appearance of his book Life Style (Phaidon Press), in a burst of publicity. Now he's entrenched as a guru, with the clippings to prove it.
But to qualify as a thinker it's usually necessary to put forward ideas that have not already been published, thoughts that are new to readers interested in your subject. I have carefully searched Mau's work (STRESS, Life Style, his Web site and various interviews and feature stories) without discovering a single thought that has not already been widely stated and explored.
Life Style expresses, in a worried and fretful sort of way, the familiar belief that commercial imagery has invaded our collective imagination, forcing us to live under the power of brands and logos. Along with that main point, the book contains several distinct elements. One is a manifesto containing Mau's suggestions for encouraging creative growth, a collection of notions that he's published before and on one occasion read in public. He and his editors have spread it across four pages of Life Style, apparently unaware that it's crammed with brain-numbing banality.
"You have to be willing to grow" is a typical piece of wisdom. Another is "Go deep. The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value." He gets more complicated when he says, "Don't be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort." From Mau that's an odd (and unexplained) remark, since his work defines cool for many designers and appears calculated to look as cool as possible.
Mau has a way of picking ideas out of the air without necessarily knowing their origin. He advises us, "Work the metaphor. Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent." Does he realize that this is a paraphrase of Freud? If he does, he doesn't say so. One statement must have been clipped from an old Reader's Digest: "Today is the child of yesterday and the parent of tomorrow."
He tells us how to absorb a book: "Read only left-hand pages." Marshall McLuhan claimed he read that way, and Mau reports that it limits the information entering our heads, thereby leaving room to think. Would this be one of the passages that made Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times call Mau a friend of the book?
Last October, Muschamp, a Mau admirer, declared that "Life Style is a designer's celebration of the book ... While perceived by some as trendy, Mau has a staunchly traditional attachment to the printed page." But you do not celebrate books with a leviathan like Life Style, a work so massive that it's far more likely to intimidate than stimulate.
It's so heavy that only athletes can hold it in their hands; it causes discomfort if it sits on your lap for more than 15 minutes; and you wouldn't dream of reading it on a subway or a plane. It requires total commitment: You put it on a desk, lean over and pick your way through it. In other words, treat it like a precious medieval manuscript in a library. A note on the back describes it as "a singular album of playful and critical statements." Playful? A book this heavy-handed is about as playful as a rhinoceros. Whatever Mau's message, it's overwhelmed by his medium. Life Style may be the most pretentious piece of book-making since Yousuf Karsh's last search-for-greatness collection of portrait photos.
Those who make the effort to read it will discover they are spending all this time on an elaborate exercise in self-congratulation, a designer's promotion piece. Mainly, it catalogues Mau's work. He discusses at length many projects completed for distinguished clients (Zone Books, the Andy Warhol Museum, I.D. magazine, the Getty Research Institute, Indigo Books), explaining the problems he and his colleagues faced and what they learned by solving them.
The designs that emerge from his studio are indeed impressive, though perhaps not impressive enough to bear the weight of Mau's self-regard. Speaking of S,M,L,XL, the 1,376-page book that he and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas produced on the subject of Koolhaas's work, Mau writes: "I have simultaneously expanded the role of the designer and made it invisible."
Expanded, yes. Invisible, no. With that book, Mau became the first designer ever to receive equal credit on the jacket with the person who was both author and subject, Koolhaas.
Life Style is expertly designed in most ways, but the images tend to be repetitive, and sometimes it falls into the kind of art-director errors in readability that drive readers crazy, like printing text in white on coloured backgrounds (at least it's his own text, so maybe he feels entitled to make it inaccessible to the rest of us).
Mau's career has turned into one of the more bizarre stories in the history of graphic design. He starts out (in the 1980s) as the kind of designer that writers, editors and publishers dream about and love to work with: He understands much of what they do and actually wants to read their texts. But he slowly twists this dream into a nightmare by Mary Shelley. In the story as Mau re-enacts it, Dr. Frankenstein's creation not only comes triumphantly to life but takes over the laboratory and announces that he will henceforth use it as the basis of his own scientific career.
No one should suggest that Mau is an emperor without clothes. My point is that he wears the wrong clothes. He's a talented designer who now stands before us costumed as a philosopher, a social critic and an artist. In these roles he appears to have nothing to say.