Disegno No.3

Beyond the Tin Can Radio


15 June 2013

This week in Vienna the Mak museum opened Nomadic Furniture 3.0, an exhibition and spiritual sequel to the Austrian designer Victor Papanek's seminal texts Nomadic Furniture and Nomadic Furniture 2, in which he argued for the benefits of DIY, disposable furniture. To celebrate the exhibition's opening, here we reprint our feature on Papanek and his legacy, first featured in Disegno no.3.

In February 2007, Thomas Geisler, design curator at Vienna’s MAK Museum of Applied Arts, and Martina Fineder, senior researcher at the city’s University of Applied Arts, sat inside an apartment in Atlanta, Georgia in America, with Jennifer Satu Papanek – the youngest daughter of the controversial and prescient designer Victor Papanek.

After Geisler and Fineder’s several email exchanges and meetings with Papanek family members, and upon the recommendation of Papanek’s fourth wife, Harlanne Herdman, Satu Papanek had agreed to meet the researchers and show them a few things that belonged to her father. “In her first email she said she had a couple of documents, a couple of slides and the like,” says Fineder. “And with this expectation we were thinking of starting some kind of oral history project related to Papanek.” Little did they suspect this visit would lead to the unearthing and subsequent foundation of an extensive Papanek archive.

Victor Papanek, who died in 1998, aged 72, was a Vienna-born designer famous for his bold statements, contentious thinking and radical stance. Designer, professor, author of eight books, lecturer and provocateur, Papanek is best known for his 1971 book Design For The Real World: Human Ecology And Social Change, in which he famously proclaimed: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them ... Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.” Such affirmations granted him expulsion from the Industrial Designers Society of America and general scepticism from the US design community, until his work was revisited and brought into the spotlight with the rise of sustainability and concerns in design.

As Geisler and Fineder sat in Papanek’s daughter’s apartment, she kept disappearing down to the basement, returning with ever more boxes. “We heard the library was with his younger daughter, but we had no clue about how extensive it was,” says Fineder. This was their second trip to the US in search of information about Papanek, having already visited the designer’s old haunts in California and Kansas. “We had a few original documents that were split up between the family, between the daughters and his fourth wife,” says Geisler. After a number of boxes were revealed, along with more than 20,000 slides, numerous books and many other documents, the real scale of this library began to take shape. “After a while we realised its size,” says Fineder. “I remember writing to the dean of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna saying: ‘It feels just like Christopher Columbus...’”

After Geisler and Fineder’s forays to the US, alongside the interest of the Austrian ministry of culture and successful applications for funding from Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, the Papanek archive and its managing foundation were established. All the boxes in Satu Papanek’s basement were transported to Vienna, alongside a number of other documents collected by the researchers during their trips. Establishing the archive in Austria was an enormous victory for the University of Applied Arts – which could now establish a research centre and reformulate some of its courses and research curriculum around such an important figure of 20th-century design.

A stove from Jalisco in Mexico, made of used car license plates (IMAGE Victor J Papanek Foundation)

I felt a little like Christopher Columbus myself when, on the cold night of 10 November 2011, peering past a dark wooden door behind the lecture room at the university, I got my first look at Yves Béhar’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Green, rubbery, round and tiny, it was one of the winners of the first Victor J Papanek Social Design Award, a parallel initiative of the Papanek archive alongside the inaugural Victor J Papanek symposium – the first day of which I had just attended at the university. Entitled Anti-Design: Prescription For Rebellion?, the symposium celebrated the legacy of Papanek as a leading critical thinker in design. Commemorations of a successful day were in full force, and the sound of chatter filled the air.

The day had been filled by presentations on the ways in which radical design could transform the future of society, allowing a diverse, illustrious group of speakers – from John Thackara (director of the design conference and network Doors of Perception) to Jamer Hunt (director of Urban and Transdisciplinary Design at the Parsons school in New York) and Felicity D Scott (director of Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University) – to introduce their views on how Papanek’s legacy lives on today. A rather full schedule had been capped with the announcement of the Design For The Real World Redux competition winners. This was a joint initiative between the Papanek Foundation, the University of Applied Arts, the Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Austrian Cultural Forum, attributing the Victor J Papanek Social Design Award to “projects that upheld Papanek’s vision of environmental and/or social responsibility”.

Aside from Béhar’s OLPC, version XO-3 – the third iteration of the iPad-like tablet that sought to “revolutionise education”, providing poor children all over the world with an affordable laptop that would double as an entertainment hub and an educational tool – other award-winning projects included Wendy Brawer’s Open Green Map project (an interactive online platform linking and mapping green sites across the world), Terreform One and Planetary One’s project for the Ecological City of the Future (a speculative vision for the future of Brooklyn), and the Jani sanitary pad – a prototype designed by a group of Swedish students working with a Kenyan community, using fibres from local plants to create an affordable pad for the many young women who were missing school several days a month because they could not afford the standard alternatives.

Intrigued by the concept, I approached the five students – Lars Vedeler, Marc Hoogendijk, Sophie Thornander, Karin Lidman, and Kristin Tobiassen – shortly after the announcement and was surprised to discover that some of them didn’t even remember the name of the village they visited, let alone details about the project. Pondering the symposium later that evening, I felt that overall it lacked unity and purpose, despite some brilliant interventions. The awards announcement felt the same way: nothing was fresh or innovative, and, despite the much-deserved recognition of Brawer’s project, I had the feeling that Papanek would not have been happy to have his name associated with projects such as the Jani pad — which, in this western corner of the world, seemed a superfluous, uninformed afterthought to a very real problem.

Upon the announcement of Papanek’s death in 1998, design writer and critic Ralph Caplan remarked how “he was the first industrial designer to really begin to talk critically about design as a force for good.” Writing in an Industrial Designers Society of America email notice at the time, members Wendy Brawer and Philip White noted how “he travelled around the world giving lectures about his ideas on ecologically sound designs to serve the poor, the disabled and the elderly. He was closely connected with folk art and crafts and studied Oriental, Eskimo and American Indian cultures to better understand basic human needs and their relationship to design”.

Moveable Playground Structure, as featured in Papanek's book The Green Imperative (1971) (IMAGE Victor J Papanek Foundation)

Born in Vienna in 1923, Papanek fled Austria on the eve of the Second World War, arriving at Ellis Island, New York – where the American world, at a time of streamlining and standardisation, must have made a strong impression on him. A young refugee from Europe, his first steps in the New World led him to study under Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin West, Arizona, in the late 1940s. Papanek earned his BA in design at New York’s Cooper Union college of art and science in 1950, and in 1955 completed postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The name of his first design studio in New York, established in the late 1940s – Design Clinic – clearly resonates with a certain idea of design as a precise discipline with the potential to improve people’s lives, engineering them to perfection, much in synch with the spirit of progress and development of post-war America. “In those days,” argue Geisler and Fineder in a recent paper, “industrial development and progress through design was considered THE strategy to enhance people’s quality of life and well-being.” Papanek seems to have been fascinated by industrial design in these years, stating his admiration for American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’ books on ergonomics and human factors.

Fineder and Geisler argue that 20 years later, “against the background of the increasing global social and ecological crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, Papanek radicalised himself and the role of design in shaping the world”. Design For The Real World was a turning point in his career – no doubt influenced by a number of recent experiences – but it still promoted design as an “extremely valuable instrument in ‘healing’ and even saving the world”, despite adopting a polemical tone.

The reasons for this shift of perspective – from the traditional studio to design for the underprivileged – start early on. Recalling a photograph of Papanek’s New York office, Geisler points out the presence of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map on the wall. “He must have been very inspired by Fuller’s ideas,” he says. Fuller was to speak, in the late 1920s, of a “comprehensive anticipatory design science” as a human practice that would align men and women with the evolutionary forces of the universe. His ideas on “systems thinking” helped crystallise design’s thinking on sustainability – and its subsequent boom after 1992 – which was in turn a strong driver for what became known in the early 21st century as social design: the design field’s connection to the social sector, where Papanek was undoubtedly a pioneer.

Papanek’s interactions with indigenous cultures began with his stint in the American army – in order to speed up an ultimately successful citizenship process – and he immediately travelled to Alaska, and then the south of the country, where he encountered American native culture. “It was more or less by accident that he started work on this volume [Design For The Real World], after he was invited to join the UNESCO technical experts programme,” says Fineder. The programme enabled Papanek to travel extensively, continuing his interactions with different cultures and allowing for the realisation of projects such as his famous Tin Can Radio – a low-budget radio made from discarded cans – which Papanek developed with his student George Seeger as part of the UNESCO programme for Southeast Asia in the mid 1960s.

Parallel to his work for UNESCO as well as the World Health Organisation, Papanek began teaching at the end of the 1950s, first at the Ontario College of Art and Design and later at Indiana’s Purdue University – where most of the projects included in Design For The Real World were developed. In the 1970s, he lectured at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the Royal Academy of Architecture in Copenhagen, and at the Kansas City Art Institute, until 1987. His prolific, multifaceted, almost obsessive lecturing, workshop-conducting and public speaking is, says Fineder, proof that Papanek “was also a child of his time”, and the same impulse behind his fascination with designers of the 1930s and 40s in America was the impulse behind his identification with the spirit of the late 1960s.

Canes for the blind of hand aligned fibre optics, designed by Robert Senn and featured in Design for the Real World (1971) (IMAGE Victor J Papanek Foundation)

At the time of its first publication in the United States in 1971, it’s easy to see how Design For The Real World expresses much of the anger and hope embedded in the student movement of the previous decade. And yet, Papanek’s claim that design was contributing to the decline of the environment introduced a new element into design discourse, alongside his pioneering defence of a more meaningful practice that embraced the whole world – and not just the west.

“All designed tools and objects are sort of extensions of human abilities, and they do tend to make life richer for us,” Papanek would later state in a 1994 interview. But “an awful lot of designs, especially in this country, make life a lot more inconvenient. I’m thinking, for instance, of high-fidelity units that have so many switches and toggles and buttons and things that they confuse most people”. Throughout his career in the late 1960s and 70s, Papanek engaged in a design effort towards the developing world, and was among the first to consider the effects of western consumption for people on the other side of the world. “Papanek always said design should be a mediator,” says Fineder. “He never considered the idea of a genius, an artist sitting alone in his studio.”

When Geisler and Fineder first came across Design For The Real World, both were discontented with the design discipline as it presented itself in the first decade of the new millennium. Their encounters with the book prompted their curiosity about a man they knew very little about. “At the time the only information that existed was a very short biog attached to his books,” says Geisler, who happened upon Papanek when he began teaching. “We started to think, who actually was this person? Why can’t we find anything about him?”

In February 2007, following the institutions list in the back of Design For The Real World, Geisler and Fineder decided to take a trip retracing Papanek’s steps. This would be the first of three trips, and it took them to New York’s Ellis Island and Cooper Union, Kansas City Art Institute, and CalArts. Along the way, they came across an extended network of people who had known and interacted with Papanek, and had a first glimpse into who the designer had been and what he had left behind – which ultimately determined the course of their research in the following years. “It was really good to talk to all the people that he worked with,” says Geisler. “Through the interviews you get different perspectives on who this person was. It was actually relieving to know that he wasn’t a guru. He was a human being, and he had his faults like all of us do. He loved sports cars and dressing up.”

Through their years of research, writing, and assembling what has now become the Papanek archive – never mind the effort of packing it in one week and shipping it from Atlanta to Vienna – Geisler and Fineder have managed to uncover much about Papanek’s life and achievements. Through a series of papers and writings, the researchers have been able to slowly start inserting layers of complexity in this designer’s life, work, and legacy. Particularly enlightening is Papanek’s pioneering defence of the idea of the designer as a mediator, which contradicts a generalised idea of the lonely prophet and “design gadfly” frequently associated with Papanek.

The idea of the mediator was, in Papanek’s day, extremely progressive, and a definite cut with the past, when designers were seen as almighty rather than just nodes in a network of several stakeholders. “If you look into sociology and cultural anthropology, mediator means a mediator of culture,” argues Fineder. “A mediator of the teams, of multidisciplinary teams, between clients and consumers.” Papanek experienced the social and economic crisis around him just as everyone else, but he was fundamentally different from his contemporaries, particularly in his extreme outspokenness. The imperative, urgent tone of his writing is characteristic of the time’s rhetoric, and filled with fabulous sound bites, which can, however, read today as anger and frustration.

“I don’t think he’s angry,” counters Geisler. “Papanek is a very funny person. When you read his books, actually you realise he has a big ego but he has no problem making fun of himself.” Fineder adds. “He was a great storyteller, everybody we met pointed that out. Students, colleagues, family, he used to have lots of people around in his house, for dinner, and people were staying to listen. He was a very talkative and inspiring person: people liked him around, and he’d always be in touch with them... he created a huge international network of people from Denmark to Australia, of people to live with, to spend time with, to research with.”

Radio receiver designed for the third world, designed by Victor Papanek and George Seeger (IMAGE Victor J Papanek Foundation)

Inspired by Papanek’s network, a similar effort is also being fostered by the current director of the Papanek archive, Alison Clarke. Alongside categorising and labelling the full contents of the archive – which Clarke says would ideally have a digital version for everyone, everywhere, to consult and access – the foundation continues to pursue the organisation of a series of events and lectures. After 2011’s vaguely disappointing first edition of the symposium, next year will bring the 2013 Papanek Memorial lecture – focusing on technology appropriate to Papanek but making the leap to the digital world – as well as the second Papanek symposium.

This time, two years of work seem to have resulted in a promising programme: taking place in December next year, the event will “bring together global experts from the fields of economics, social anthropology, design and policy making to critically examine the myths, ideologies and practices of these emerging design economies”. Clarke refuses to engage in western fascination with these economies, and instead wants to ask practical, difficult questions, and understand what Europe and the US can learn from them. “This is not about social design, and not about taking advantage of their networks,” says Clarke, pointing out how “we need to engage in a global approach”, seeking to get away from the white, male, western paradigm of design.

“The complexity of Papanek’s writing and work has been lost,” she says, stating how the archive is mostly composed of documents and books, which can be frustrating for designers who are still object-centric. After the cataloguing and labelling process is complete, Clarke is interested in projecting the archive and Papanek into the future, but her background as a historian has her currently writing a book about 1970s critical design for MIT.

Meanwhile, Geisler and Fineder are no longer working with the archive, but their years of research on Papanek keep finding new outlets for expression – especially at a moment when 1960s and 70s utopias seem to be consistently revived by both designers and architects. Fineder is completing her PhD, which focuses on critical design practices in East Germany in the 1970s. Next year, at Vienna’s MAK, Geisler curates Nomadic Furniture, a show titled after one of Papanek’s books, which seeks to shed new light onto the designer’s furniture production, informing it historically and geographically.

“Obviously there are some parallels with political, sociological changes between the 1970s and today, but the 1970s are not the starting point,” says Geisler. “We must connect Papanek with what Rietveld did in the 1920s, do-it-yourself furniture, Autoprogettazione in Italy, there are quite a few prominent protagonists.” Geisler argues that the possibility to distribute open-source design is something Papanek would have dreamt of. “Papanek has always been framed in a very specific direction,” he says. “And if you read through Design For The Real World, there is just so much more. It’s not just about the third world. It’s really very much about our world. Looking through projects for developing countries actually teaches us to look at ourselves, and our environment, and how we create our surroundings.”

Geisler would like to see the Papanek archive serving as a resource for these and other enquiries, which would add to the debate on Papanek and would continue to inform researchers and the general public about the personality and character of the designer. As a kick-off, Geisler and Fineder will compile all of their writings on a website, distributing them for free and opening the doors to all the world, in true Papanek spirit.

Fineder and Geisler argue that 20 years later, “against the background of the increasing global social and ecological crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, Papanek radicalised himself and the role of design in shaping the world”. Design For The Real World was a turning point in his career – no doubt influenced by a number of recent experiences – but it still promoted design as an “extremely valuable instrument in ‘healing’ and even saving the world”6, despite adopting a polemical tone.