Healthy prophet

Victor Papanek’s unusual and far-reaching ideas have made him a guru of Green design.

SBHD: Victor Papanek’s unusual and far-reaching ideas have made him a guru of Green design.

To believers he’s a guru, a preacher of truth and sanity, a constant source of inspiration and hope. To the unenlightened, his words are irksome and uncomfortable, he’s too wholesome, a downright killjoy.

Now 69 and distinguished professor of The University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design, Austrian-born Victor Papanek has become a figurehead much revered by the Green design movement. His ideas, centred on the use of design to improve the lot of the disabled, the weak, the poor, and anyone else who might welcome some problems being solved, were first spelled out in his seminal book – Design For the Real World – which appeared a quarter of a century ago and was the first forum for connecting ecology and the environment with design. “One of the things that bothers me about the reception to my earlier books is that many people feel I’m trying to force my ideas on everyone. I’m not even suggesting that my views are better than others, but I do feel that my voice should be heard in addition to all the others.”

Papanek’s interest in design began when he was very young. “As a child my great ambition was to be a shop-window dresser. When I was about nine years old I designed a window in my father’s shop. It elicited favourable comments, and the thought of becoming a window display designer was a fantasy I lived with for some time. But this was completely against my parents’ expectations. They wanted me to go into law or the army.”

His father died when Papanek was just ten years old and three years later he and his mother emigrated to New York. “We were extremely poor, but I wanted to continue my studies. In those days there were three free schools. I chose to try for the Cooper Union which taught architecture and engineering.”

Faced with making a choice between design or architecture, Papanek could not decide and took the unusual step of taking both courses. “Even when I finished college I still couldn’t make up mind what to do. Then Frank Lloyd Wright accepted me as apprentice. I was there for just over a year and after that I knew I didn’t want to be an architect. I got on as well as anyone did with Lloyd Wright, but there was terrible trouble when I decided to leave. I told the others and they advised me to go while he was out of town. But I insisted on saying goodbye in person – he’d accepted me without a fee and I wanted to thank him. He was furious. He had my bags searched and told one of his assistants that I was a boy he’d picked up out of the gutter. Years later I found out that despite all the fuss, the only people he respected were the ones who left.”

There was a spell working for Raymond Loewy, then a job with Helena Rubenstein. “I designed bottles, colours for the liquids, point-of-sale displays and packaging for cosmetics.”

Unease with superficial styling began to grow, and Papanek wrote to the United Nations: “The urge to do something useful had been with me for most of my life, and had been sharpened by having seen the world from the wrong side of the tracks.” There began a fruitful collaboration, with Papanek working as a designer and consultant to Unesco for many years.

He left Rubenstein to work freelance and teach at Cooper Union. “I began to really think about how to apply design. It was my mother who provided the route – she was rather short and that made me realise that life was full of obstacles for her. There seemed to be so many problems that designers weren’t addressing.”

Papanek’s disillusion was confirmed when he sat in on other Cooper Union lectures. “I’d hear about these projects for casinos on the moon and hotels under the sea, but felt they had little to do with the real world. I felt it was just as challenging to set the task, for example, of designing a bicycle for a blind person. I also made heavy pillows for male students to attach to their stomachs so they got some idea what it was like to experience pregnancy. The aim was to get them to design chairs that were comfortable and easy to get in and out of.”

Papanek’s catalogue of designs is seemingly endless – he never applies for patents in the hope that the ideas will be copied and put to good use. There are countless chairs, human-powered vehicles, a hand-cranked cooler and vegetable-based environmentally friendly packaging.

Much of Papanek’s inspiration has been drawn from his anthropological studies. “My real gurus have been the Innuit, Navaho and Balinese peoples.”

He’s lived with all three either while working for Unesco or “doing what my students would now describe as hanging out – leading an indolent life and learning a great deal. Through all three I’ve learned that there are always simpler ways of doing things, and that anything you design or create should be made so that it doesn’t destroy the world, can be recycled and reused, or can be used for a very long time and repaired – they’re very unpopular considerations.”

Papanek is often dismayed by design’s superficial applications. “Design took a real nosedive in the Eighties, and now here we are in the mid-Nineties with the nose still stuck in ground. One of the things that annoyed me recently was that odd-shaped kettle by Philippe Starck. It’s difficult to fill and pour without burning your hand, and that really rattles my cage.”

His latest project provides the perfect example of the Papanek work process, of detecting a need and then answering it. “At college recently we had to evacuate a building because poisonous fumes had found their way into the air-conditioning. The lifts stopped automatically, and as we gathered outside, we realised there was a student stranded on the fourth floor in his wheelchair. It was a nasty situation, but six of us managed to carry him down the stairs. I have since found a grant to develop a clip-on lift that can be erected next to a building,” he says.

“Really, it’s the designer’s duty to metabolise this sort of unpleasant experience into something useful.”

Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World is published by Thames and Hudson, priced at ú10.95. His latest book, The Green Imperative: Toward the Spiritual in Architecture and Design, will be published by Thames and Hudson in the autumn.

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