Until 2 February the Design Museum of Barcelona is exhibiting the first monographic of designer and design theorist Victor Papanek. The exhibition has been coproduced by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein (Germany) and the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, which is associated with the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

This is an important exhibition for different reasons. On the one hand it shows previously unexhibited material by Papanek. Following extensive research i the archives of the Papanek Foundation the two curators, Alison J. Clarke and Amelie Klein, have shed light on documents and projects that have never been exhibited before. On the other hand, it offers the public the chance to see a figure who, despite often being cited, is largely unknown. Finally, this exhibition offers a contemporary view of the concepts promoted by Papanek through the works of current artists, connecting his thinking with art.

Victor J. Papanek, Tetradekaidecahedral movable playground structure (1973-1975). © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

Of Austrian origin, Papanek spent almost all of his career in the USA. When the Nazis annexed Austria he left Vienna and set out for New York in 1939. There he studied design and architecture. By 1946 he had opened his first business, focussing on the creation of modern furniture at accessible prices for the consumers of the post-war period. Throughout the 1960s many designers started to question their own professions, and the work of Papanek became increasingly political. Finally, in 1970 he published the book that is considered to be a pioneering work in the discourse on design: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change – the most translated work in the history of design.

What seem to me to be the most important thing about this exhibition is the recovery of a design theoretician who suggested, possibly for the first time systematically, that there should be a role for design and designers in society. He couldn’t have chosen a better time to do it. According to Papanek, design had to fulfil four conditions and perhaps those four premises would never be as necessary as they are today.

Victor J. Papanek, We are all handicapped, detail of the poster number 1 of Big Character: Work Chart for Designers (1973, draft of1969).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be for everyone. What he called Design for all appeared as a discipline in the USA after the Second World War, when a large part of the population (injured soldiers, amputees, and people with a variety of disabilities) was affected. However, Design for all has always been considered as design for minorities. Papanek rejects this hypothesis arguing that if we add together all these social groups, we are in fact talking about a majority. He also included groups for which it seems that design is not aimed, either for economic reasons, cultural origin, for living in a country of precarious economic means, because of age, etc.  In fact, his discourse rejects the idea of a standard, global user. He precisely situated functional, cultural, ethnic, economic diversity, etc. As the new standard. In addition to his own designs, the exhibition shows many of the works presented by students under his tuition. Including the social environment as a focus, these international student projects are aimed at “minorities”; in other words at people who are underrepresented and routinely excluded from the design process, such as children, women, people from third countries, elderly and disabled people.

Victor J. Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1st USA edition in hardcover, New York: Pantheon Books (1971). Jacket design by Helen Kirkpatrick, cover photograph by Georg Oddner/TIO © Pantheon Random House, courtesy of University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be sustainable. The climate crisis which will bring with it a systemic and food crisis is not a dystopic fiction to form the idea for a catastrophic movie; it is a real and increasingly close possibility. It is virtually indisputable that the human impact on the environment has been the cause of this crisis. Before the 1972 Club of Rome said for the first time from the academic world that growth had a limit, Papanek had expressed the idea clearly in his Design for the Real World. Afterwards he produced the work Design for Human Scale and The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World. At the same time, his view of sustainability included social justice. For him everything is connected: excessive consumption, environmental pollution and social injustice. This worldview, which in its complexity is more urgent today than ever, illustrated the profound influence that Papanek’s principle mentor, Richard Buckminster Fuller, had upon him. Like Fuller, Papanek also believed in the functionality of the intelligent principles of construction that we find in nature. However, unlike Fuller, Papanek did not believe in technology as the solution to the world’s problems, and he even published a work about this called How Things Don’t Work with James Hennessey in 1977. This exhibition presents historical and contemporary works which respond to those challenges, which are even more important today.

Victor J. Papanek & James Hennessey, Work Cube (1973). © James Hennessy and University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be collaborative. Papanek was one of the first to denounce the “talent” of the creator as being the only driving force for projects. He proposed multidisciplinary teams where the designer is just another member alongside psychologists, engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, physicists, etc. And in fact, today design is a joint discipline, but unlike what Papanek proposed, the teams tend to include experts in sales and marketing to seduce the consumer. His proposal placed the user at the centre of the creative process, not just as the final consumer but as the starting point, and as the ultimate aim for the sense of the project. The preface to Design for the Real World begins like this: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second”. The reaction was considerable and cost him his place in the Industrial Designers Society of America. Nobody had ever spoken about collaborative design or co-design like this before. Theoreticians and designers like Ezio Manzinni have been working like this for years, and the schools have established this as the main working method.

Victor J. Papanek during filming of WNED-TV Channel 17’s series Design dimensions in Buffalo, New York (1961- 1963). © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be open. This is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects which show Papanek as being indebted to a particular moment, but at the same time how he transcended his conjecture to keep it current. At the end of the 1960s, in what we have come to know as the Do-it-yourself era, this was a declaration of intention. There had been different publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog, exploring the possibilities of self-management and self-sufficiency at all levels, against a consumer society with which they did not agree. Papanek took up the practical and artistic trend of promoting the conception, production, adaptation, improvement, repair or recycling at home, using the resources that were available and by means of cooperation, collaboration and self-teaching. It was therefore not a question of creating closed products but open systems, which the users could make and adapt to their own needs. In that sense, the two volumes of the book written jointly with James Hennessey How to Build and Where to Buy Lightweight Furniture That Folds, Collapses, Stacks, Knocks-Down, Inflates or Can be Thrown Away and Re-Cycled, are a brilliant example of an open design handbook. This was not a product catalogue but a recipe book for militant DIY. In the exhibition there are some examples of furniture suggested in the book alongside the original publications. Today, with our digital culture, the idea of open-code design has taken on another dimension. Open code is a revolutionary way of designing, developing and distributing anything. If the historical origin of this term is related to software development, it is currently applied to other areas of activity. So, we will hear about open hardware, biotechnology, open culture, direct democracy, all of which are heading towards the change to an open society model.

Papanek talked about the importance of design and a political tool.

As a result of all of this, I would say we are now in the privileged position of being able to take on the force and the importance of Victor Papanek’s ideas. We can even intuit some shortfalls and reject some of the ideas of his work, which was the result of a specific time during the Cold War, when the politicisation of society was frowned upon and dangerous if you tended toward the left. The US government invested a lot of money in projects which either had to be for some humanitarian use, or military use, and Papanek, like the other designers, took part. In some of the images and documents you can see a dichotomy between financing and objectives, and this is even seen in some of the other academic programmes he was involved in. Victor Papanek gave classes at Ontario College of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Purdue University, the California Institute of the Arts (where he was dean) and he was Head of the Department of Product Design in the School of Design at North Carolina State College.  He headed the design department in the Kansas City Art Institute from 1976 to 1981. In 1981, he became the J.L. Constant Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Kansas. He also worked, taught, and consulted in Sweden, England, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Finland and Australia.

However, Papanek never gave up teaching about the importance of design as a political tool. Proof of this is when he attached the powerful US car industry, and not just in his books but also on a television programme which he was directing and presenting, saying things like: “Back in the day if someone liked killing people, they would become a general, buy a coalmine or study nuclear physics, Today, industrial design has allowed production line killing. Designing criminally unsafe cars which kill or maim almost a million people worldwide every year, creating totally new types of indestructible trash which chaotically fills the landscape, selecting materials and manufacturing processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous species. And they carefully teach the skills required for these activities to our youth.”

Victor J. Papanek, Samisen dining room chairs pictured with and unknown model (1960-1970).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

This militancy led to him giving his objects a pretty unattractive image of precariousness. You might say there was a certain satisfaction in the povera aesthetic. Some of the authors of the time criticised this extreme austerity. No less than Buckminster Fuller understood that the aesthetic could be a tool he included in his projects. Despite the fact that when he was starting out, he designed low cost furniture which were highly charged aesthetically, Papanek was inflexible and the few projects he carried out in the 1960s and 1970s became simple objects, suffering from a kind of nakedness which made them seem distant.

Perhaps the exhibition suffers from the same thing. Although it is well set up and varied, the content may leave you cold. The artistic installations splashed along the exhibition route add a welcome visuality and stop it becoming a simple archive exhibition. The exhibition is also complemented by some twenty contemporary works which carry Papanek’s ideas through to the twenty-first century at the hand of designers like Catherine Sarah Young, Arquitectura Forense, Jim Chuchu, Tomás Saraceno, Gabriel Ann Maher and the Brazilian group Flui Coletivo and Questtonó. It also covers complex topics such as global climate change, fluid gender identities, consumer behaviour and the economic reality of migrations, which reflect the continual resonance of the questions that Papanek was already asking in the 1960s.

Fingermajig, tactile children’s toy, by Victor J. Papanek’s ex student Jorma Vennola, Finland (1965- 1970).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

Barcelona will give its own view of Victor Papanek with a series of parallel activities to generate an updated re-reading of his concepts. There is a cinema-forum, talks, workshops and round tables, generating knowledge which will be brought together in a special publication. You can see programme of events on the Design Museum website and take advantage of them to see the exhibition.

At the same time, the Design Museum has called on the design schools in Barcelona to give a re-reading of the permanent collection of the Museum in Papanek’s terms, to awaken the critical view of the students. Students will also make suggestions for innovation in children’s parks to coincide with the Barcelona Dóna Molt de Joc programme for the renewal of the parks being undertaken by Barcelona city council. The result of this double task for Barcelona’s design students can be seen on the fringe of this exhibition from January.