Q&A: Bruce Mau on 20 years of S, M, L, XL

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Later this month, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will bestow the prestigious Collab Design Excellence Award on graphic designer Bruce Mau. Along with this distinction, the institution is exhibiting his life’s work, including over 200 books he has designed. One of these – S, M, L, XL, co-authored with Rem Koolhaas and edited by Jennifer Sigler – turned 20 this year, and it remains a bestseller for Monacelli Press. Azure contributing editor David Theodore spoke with Mau about his collaboration with Koolhaas, what it means to design books in the age of digital publishing, and what the practice of architecture needs to change.

Azure: There are very few design books that are still important 20 years after they come out, but it’s still possible to find people who really hate S, M, L, XL – hate the design, hate the content – as well as people who think it’s really important. How would you describe it now?

Bruce Mau: Well, it’s hard to look at your own child and call them classic. I don’t think I have a very good perspective on it. For me, it seems like we just did it. But it’s clear to me that a couple things happened. You know, even when we were doing it, people hated it. Good friends who I had worked with for a long time said, “Bruce, that’s the worst thing you’ve ever done. It’s a total mess, it’s everything and the kitchen sink – you guys just have no discipline. You really should edit the thing.” Which was very surprising to me, because it was very tightly edited. We’d spent a lot of time keeping it to the limit of what it became. Even though that is a massive book, if you look at any individual project, we did exactly what we had to do tell that story in the best way. Any individual page is very straightforward.

All of the dynamics really come in the kind of cinematic dimension of the book – it’s in the sequencing, and the juxtaposition, and the cut from one idea to the next. So I’m not surprised that people hate it now, because people hated it then.

One of the comments when the book came out was a New York Times review that called the book’s format “user-hostile.” Does that make sense to you?

There might be other versions of user-friendly that are relevant at that moment. Obviously, it’s a very heavy book. Traveling with that book is not so easy. So in that sense, it’s not user-friendly. But occupying your space and engaging you in an argument – it’s very user friendly. The book’s scale and the occupation of space was a kind of metaphor for the work. It was a brick that fit into a kind of wall of ideas. That experience can’t be produced in another way. And it’s organized in a very, very structured and simple way: it’s easy to find things. So in that sense, I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve designed.

The premise of S, M, L, XL is really about contextualizing the lives that we live in order to practise design and architecture. My ambition in the work was to viscerally connect people to what it takes to live this way. So for me, all the form is content; there isn’t anything in there that isn’t part of the story.

One of the things that we introduced was what we called “world images.” They were inserted at 90 degrees to the rest of the book, and they were completely unrelated, it seemed, to everything around them, so the context in which they appeared was not predictable. In the experience of turning the page, suddenly the whole thing – your whole world – is cranked by 90 degrees, and you have to look at the world differently. Suddenly there’s a victim of a war in Africa in my face, and this is part of me, it’s part of my world now, part of the life that I live, and it’s affecting the work that I do. I’m not somehow – miraculously, magically – separated from it, so that it doesn’t affect me. It’s actually where I live.

The form is not the purpose. But the form is a powerful tool to deliver content. And the form is content. That’s why Rem ultimately insisted on co-authorship.

Collaboration is one of the things that I was curious about. Lately in architecture, the idea of collaboration has become more and more important. As you’ve just described it, it might have done something for you personally in your own career.

That experience was – you know, it’s really rare. Very few authors want that kind of deep interaction and collaboration. Very few see the whole form of the enterprise as a design opportunity. And Rem – he’s one of the greatest designers of the last century, so he really understands the potential of collaboration. Of all the people I’ve ever met, Rem is maybe the best collaborator I’ve ever seen. Rem can get people to do things that they are not capable of. For me, that process was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Is there any way that people use the book that you didn’t expect?

It became a kind of reference point for architects, for good and for bad. The one thing that I wanted to do with the book was to re-frame the discussion about the life of architecture. It’s hard to remember what it was like before that, but it was as if the results of architecture just popped out of thin air into perfect formation without any kind of struggle, or grief, or disaster – things just kind of happened perfectly, and people did not sully them with their presence; sex never happened there. It was a kind of idealized world that had practically no relation to the reality of actual architecture or design practice. And so S, M, L, XL was an effort to get at the reality of that world.

It’s interesting, because almost every publisher I meet today says, “I wish I had known you then. I would have done that book in a heartbeat.” But the reality is that only Franco Monacelli had the guts to do it. And there were times when he was white with fear, because it took way longer than we anticipated. People came to beg me to finish it because they needed Rem for projects! People from Rem’s practice and his collaborators would come to visit the studio and say, “Please, can you bring this thing to conclusion? Rem has been working on nothing else for five years.” But we were doing it as quickly as we could, within our own practices, because it was all almost entirely self-funded.

If you think about the way design – graphic design especially – works, it’s mostly back-of-house, and you have the protection of not being in the public eye. S, M, L, XL was an extremely intimate collaboration; Rem and I became friends, we traveled everywhere together for five years, we went on holidays together, and Jennifer Sigler practically lived with us. It was an extremely intimate process of private collaboration. And when it came time to actually do the cover of the book, Rem insisted that I be credited as a co-author. At that time I didn’t think of myself as an author; I thought of myself as a designer. So I was a little bit reluctant to do that.

The first time I saw S, M, L, XL on the street, I was walking in Los Angeles. A bookstore had dummy of the book in the window with a “COMING SOON” sign. I just about fainted. I had never seen myself out front. Even though I was a pretty well-known designer by then, the graphic designer in that context is really back-of-house, and they don’t have to take responsibility for the authorship. Seeing my name on the cover there was like, “Wow, it’s in the public now.” It was a totally different kind of experience that I wasn’t really prepared for.

So design, then, is part authorship and not simply – what would be the opposite of the authorship?

Well, if it’s purely formal, it remains mute, and it is in support of the author. When it engages in the way that our collaboration did, it becomes the content itself. In our case, there was no line between roles – Rem and I framed up stories, we structured ideas, and Jennifer designed pages. We were in each other’s stuff, really doing it together. And that’s why, I think, it’s as powerful as it is. There was stuff Jennifer designed just to show us how she saw the work, how she saw a particular section. But when I saw the design that she had done, I was like, “Don’t touch that. It’s perfect.” Because the intention is perfectly keyed to the content. So that’s set, right? Part of it was understanding when it happens. You know: It doesn’t have to be me.

When you see infographics today, or maybe even TED Talks, do you feel responsible for that?

No. I think that S, M, L, XL did have an effect on my own work …. I know that there are certain projects that open up new territory – they open up a new kind of space. Those projects are really hard to do. It’s somewhat unpredictable; you can’t know that that’s going to happen in your work. But there are some projects that, when you do them, open up a space, and suddenly you get this kind of new real estate that you can work in, and explore it and make the most of it. But when you open up that new real estate, other people can explore it too.

That’s what happened to some degree with S, M, L, XL; the discourse around architecture suddenly had a different dynamic range. That was really what we hoped to do: to say, look, architects, when you build a building, people are going to have sex in that building. And some people will die there. And people may be born there and grow old there – it has a kind of real life dimension.

I remember seeing an Arata Isozaki exhibit around this time at MOCA in LA. It was a very beautiful exhibit – I mean, it was stunning, with the first high-definition screens anyone had ever seen. And the images of the building … they were stunningly beautiful, but they had erased every person. There wasn’t a person – ever – in any of the buildings. It was perfection, but without people. And it was, in its own way, undeniably beautiful. But it was also a kind of poverty that I found heart-breaking. Somehow we lose the humanity of it.

In some ways that’s what the Kindle offers us. You know, it’s interesting to me that in the Kindle experience, we’ve eliminated the designer.

That’s true. Except for the designer of the Kindle.

The uniqueness to the design of the content has been eliminated. And I think we’ve lost a culture in the process. We haven’t been able to make the process of designing that experience into a cultural form. We’ve replaced it with efficiency, so instead of beauty and richness and complexity, and the kind of experience that you have with S, M, L, XL, you have a kind of efficient delivery of text. This has its beauty; I think it’s very powerful. But there’s an opportunity to think about how we recover the design of the experience.

The experience of the object is a kind of unfolding in time that is unique to the book. It’s a unique narrative form. In some ways, it’s kind of the love of my life – I’ve authored and designed over 250 books. So I’ve spent a lot of time working on the sequencing of narrative, and the effect that you can only get, really, in the physical space. Text on a Kindle may be the same text, but the book (and the experience and the cultural object and the material interface) is very different.

If we had invented the Kindle before the book, as a format, existed – if we came the other direction in time, as it were, and you only had the Kindle – you would immediately think, “Wow, what if this was physical? How cool would that be?”

I think the vast majority of books don’t need to be physical. If it’s just the text, for the most part, those don’t need physicality, and you get very little return on the paper that you use. But when it’s something where it’s really a cultural form – McLuhan talked about how when a technology is no longer relevant, it becomes an art form. And I think to some degree that’s what’s happening with books, where the books that remain are a powerful art form.

The kind of empty, unpopulated architectural monograph that you were working against is still very much with us. We have lots of those.

Yeah, weirdly. [Laughs.] You’d think that we would have had more impact, but clearly not.

Peter Galison – an academic who has written about what “big science” is – commented in one of his books, “In a way, ‘big science’ is a useless category; nobody would ever categorize architecture by whether they were small, medium or big buildings.”

[Laughs.] That’s great.

In another of his books, called “How Experiments End,” Galison asks the question, When do you think the experiment is over? You look at it and say, “Well, let’s not work on this anymore; that’s as far as it can go”? In that sense, I think there’s something about designing that is more widespread than simply, as you say, doing the form for the content.

Yeah. I think of design as a methodology of leadership. Think about what designers do: we envision the future, then systematically execute the vision. Now, find me a better definition of leadership.

So in design, we have a methodology of leadership. And not just the kind of anecdotal “You should be a leader.” It’s a method of leadership through which we can show you how to envision the future. We can show you how to execute the vision. And every entrepreneur is a designer. They envision their business – envision it, and execute it. One of the things that we’re doing now is helping non-designers use design methods in their work. Not to replace designers, but to upgrade the level of discourse, so that when they work with designers they have the language to work effectively.

How do you do that?

We have an experience that we’ve designed called Compete With Beauty, which looks at design not as a frivolous thing, or a formal thing. It looks at all the dimensions of beauty as a competitive model, or a competitive edge. If you look at all of the highest-performing companies over the last decade, they’re all intensive design businesses. These design-led companies outperform the market by about 275 per cent over a decade. It’s the most impactful way to compete. I mean, think about what happened with S, M, L, XL. Put it into a normal package, and it disappears. We wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Rem Koolhaas and OMA aside, aren’t architects most in need of that kind of design leadership?

What’s really interesting is that architects were the first to think this way – they were way ahead. The first to think holistically about designing the way we live. But when it became a profession, they did so much work to police the boundary of architecture that instead of just keeping other people out, they kept the architects in. Architects should be making movies, they should be designing games. They should be designing education. All of the great challenges we have. We need the synthesis practice of architecture. The complex synthesis that architects do is the currency of our time. It’s the most challenging thing to produce. Architects know how to do it, but they keep it inside of that fence, and they don’t compromise and go outside.

I think this is where Rem has been very, very powerful, in making the collaborations over the fence. And, basically, not respecting the fence at all. Most architects do, and architectural organizations do, and they demand that the members do. So you end up with all of that power applied only to one product, when it fact it should be applied to cars, and transportation systems, and everything else that we do.

You can’t really say the same thing about a doctor; you want a doctor who really knows about the problem that you have, and you don’t quite care whether they know about what’s going on in film.

But the architectural method is one of massively complex synthesis. You think about what Frank Gehry does when he designs a building. It’s staggering. I want whoever is doing that to verify that it’s not going to fall down – but that’s just one technical requirement. Let’s not let that one technical requirement isolate a culture.

The preceding is an extended version of an interview that appears in Azure’s November/December Interiors Issue, on newsstands now.

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