Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 7, 2021
Alison J. Clarke Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. 360 pp.; 78 color ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780262044943)

In a moment of climate catastrophe and political crises, Alison Clarke’s Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World joins other recent publications in demonstrating renewed interest in the design educator’s manifesto for socially and ecologically responsible design. With the benefit of a half-century’s distance from the 1971 English-language publication of Papanek’s influential Design for the Real World, Clarke covers an impressive amount of territory to show how the landmark book was not the straightforward product of a single designer’s motivated conscience, but rather was built atop a complex mesh of Cold War cultural politics, institutional structures, and the rocky personal story of Papanek’s struggles to find secure footing in the postwar US design profession.

The book follows on the more broadly thematic 2018 Vitra Design Museum exhibition and catalog Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, to which Clarke, both a professor of design history and Director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, contributed as an author and cocurator. It also pulls from the slim biography titled Victor Papanek: Path of a Design Prophet (2015) by Papanek’s fellow design educator Al Gowan, though Clarke goes beyond Gowan’s unannotated anecdotes in her robust use of Papanek’s papers and a slate of other archives. 

Chapter 1 charts Papanek’s early life, capturing his displacement from a bourgeois upbringing in interwar Vienna, his wartime emigration to New York, and his first foray into design through his consultancy Design Clinic, founded in 1946. Clarke situates the particularities of Papanek’s story in relation to other émigré designers such as Victor Gruen and Paul T. Frankl, drawing on prior scholarship that establishes how their nationality, Jewishness, and commercially inclined practices kept them on the fringes of the United States’s architecture and design elite. Clark argues that it was this experience as a perpetual outsider—his lack of a pedigree furnished by social connections, his incomplete education, and his somewhat fumbling freelance attempts—that fueled Papanek’s drive to succeed, but his self-narrative often outpaced his actual achievements. The second chapter continues unpacking Papanek’s early cultural and creative influences, from the progressive social psychiatry of Fredric Wertham—who founded Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic in 1946 to serve impoverished Black communities—to the perhaps unexpected source of Papanek’s first actual commissions, a series of bondage-fetish comics published in the early 1940s by the notorious soft-porn entrepreneurs Irving and Paula Klaw. Clarke also interrogates Papanek’s claim to have worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, the United States’s most prominent architect and a personal hero to the young designer. Scrutinizing the extant evidence (no records firmly document his Taliesin apprenticeship, and a crucial letter from Wright in Papanek’s papers may not be what it appears), Clarke demonstrates the importance of analyzing archival documents themselves as designed objects with complex material lives.

Papanek moved to California in 1950 in a “self-rebranding project” (67) that included a gallery venture, Hollywood-glam interior design speculations, and some rather prosaic furniture designs for local manufacturers. Clarke roots out Papanek’s entrée into design criticism for lifestyle publications and, with the benefit of later documentation, discerns that even into his mature career Papanek retroactively padded his résumé with partially or even wholly imagined connections and accomplishments. While “his compulsion to engineer an enhanced version of himself . . . reveals the extent to which he viewed himself as an outsider desperately clawing his way into the cultural design milieu of America” (87), it may also reveal a frustrated creative who felt entitled to more, or earlier, successes than he had yet enjoyed.

Chapters 4 and 5 tackle how the cultural and institutional landscapes of the Cold War informed Papanek’s move into design education and his shifting priorities as a practitioner. In chapter 4, Clarke explores Papanek’s exposure to the political agendas of governmental university funding and the influential media critiques of Edmund Snow Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan in his first full-time teaching job at the Ontario College of Art beginning in 1954. That same year, a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—epicenter of the Cold War academic-military-industrial complex—provided his introduction to Buckminster Fuller’s technocratic vision of design as a comprehensive tool kit for social, economic, and ecological engineering. As with Wright, Papanek’s admiration for Fuller was coupled with an ambition to be seen as his peer; his relationship with Fuller is a recurring point through the remainder of the book. Chapter 5 charts Papanek’s short but pivotal stint (1962–64) in a full-time faculty position at North Carolina State University, where his pedagogical reputation ballooned as he leaned more decisively away from the professional norms of industrial design. Clarke attends to some stark contrasts here, juxtaposing Papanek’s growing attention to the various inequities design can perpetuate against his summer teaching at the Penland School of Crafts, which at the time openly excluded Black students. Papanek’s sudden self-styling as a humanitarian designer also sits uncomfortably against Clarke’s close examination of his design proposals for major chemical companies and military applications.

Clarke’s key insight in the book’s central chapters is that Papanek’s military-industrial engagements formed a surprising source for, rather than an aberration from, the social agenda that would define his later career, distinguishing it from other branches of a budding US counterculture. But Papanek was also skilled at harnessing student activism to bolster his visibility as a critic and educator. Chapter 6 follows Papanek to Purdue University (1964–70), where his interest in “bionic” design flourished with defense funding even as his speaking and publishing engagements recast his activity in socially progressive terms. Clarke dissects a short-lived Purdue journal, Design Course, to illustrate how Papanek both contributed to and co-opted a growing discourse of ethical design—a keen-eyed use of the kinds of revealing source material often buried in university design departments.

His savvy repositioning won Papanek visiting lectureships and frequent appearances at design conferences, where he donned the role of thought leader for design-student rebellions. Chapter 7 analyzes this process during a Nordic phase in Papanek’s career from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, with radical student activists and events in Finland and Scandinavia “providing him with the ideal bandwagon on which he could hitch a ride” (177). At the same time, she credits his pedagogical engagements with northern European students as an important learning process for both parties—especially in the realm of design for disability, foregrounded in workshops organized by the Scandinavian Students’ Design Organization (SDO) in 1968.

Clarke homes in on the publication and mixed reception of Papanek’s Design for the Real World  in chapter 8. Initially rejected by US publishers, the first edition was published in Swedish (as The Environment and the Millions: Design for Service or Profit?) in 1970 and drew substantially from the social-design tactics he had encountered through the SDO. This radical turn was not without costs, as Clarke’s archival digging details: disagreeing with Papanek’s polemics, his idol Fuller nearly refused to write the book’s English-language introduction. And while a new position at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)—begun the same year as his book’s publication—and quick promotion to dean of its School of Design should have represented Papanek’s best platform yet for shaping design’s engagement with social and ecological imperatives, his unexpectedly conservative attempts to instill a professional curriculum ran up against the radically unstructured CalArts culture.

Chapter 9 charts Papanek’s somewhat peripatetic course during and after his brief CalArts employment, including a rocky 1972–73 guest professorship at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts; the publication of the Nomadic Furniture books (1973–74) with James Hennessey; and his gradual retreat over the later 1970s to a more apolitical stance, disillusioned with the design academy despite his continued teaching and publishing opportunities. Clarke marshals a wealth of material to contextualize the broader currents that left Papanek’s vision of social design out of step with an increasingly technologized profession and shifting international debates on development. Her tenth and concluding chapter sensitively traces Papanek’s declining relevance as a radical voice in the 1980s and 1990s, even as ideas of social and ecological design moved into the mainstream and informed the subfield of design anthropology. Although Papanek continued to garner fellowships, speaking engagements, and accolades, his later publications had much cooler receptions than his first bombshell book—despite a world already primed to their aims by his earlier work.

Deeply researched and well illustrated, this book offers a much-needed new perspective on the tangled roots and many contradictions of social design, epitomized by one of Papanek’s recurrent object lessons (and an evocative closing image for Clarke): the dung-powered tin-can radio, in different lights either a tool of liberation for the masses or a vehicle of state propaganda and control. More broadly, the book is methodologically instructive for historians of design, with running commentary on the Papanek archive and its gaps offering valuable reflexivity on the possibilities (and limits) of archival sources and a biographical framework. The wide landscape of twentieth-century design education emerges as a rich and understudied territory, with many briefly mentioned institutional and interpersonal histories inviting further research. And in her sustained attention to the women in Papanek’s life—his mother, Helene; his five ex-wives and two daughters; and later feminist pushback to his publications and CalArts curriculum—Clarke reminds us that design history must not only attend to women’s overlooked direct contributions to design, it must also interrogate the many ways nondesigning women have propped up (or been marginalized by) men in the profession. Uncovering dimensions of Papanek’s life and important contexts for his work that remain largely absent from his towering image in the field, this book underscores the value of looking through and beyond designers’ carefully constructed and maintained professional facades.

Colin Fanning
PhD Candidate, Bard Graduate Center