There are events in the history of design (and in history) that work like a reckoning: they separate the before from the after, the wheat from the chaff, the light from the dark.
Fifty-two years after its release, Design for the real world by Victor Papanek is still all this: the mirror that since 1971 reflects the conscience of millions of designers. Disillusionment and hope, invective and civil prayer, Design for the real world is an unsurpassed journey into the potential of design as a tool to improve the world or bring it down for good.
The essay finally returns to bookstores for the types of Quodlibet in an edition edited by Alison J. Clarke, anthropologist and design historian, and by Emanuele Quinz, curator and art historian, author of the book Compasso d'Oro 2022 Against the object (Quodlibet).
Quinz, the decision to re-edit Papanek's essay is doubly political: due to the value of that text, and also because with Clarke you have focused on the first edition of the essay instead of, as one might have expected, the second of 1984, in which Papanek nuanced some of his positions.
“That's right. First of all, we found it incredible that a text rightly considered at the basis of the ethical and ecological options of contemporary design, cited by all and read by very few, was no longer available.
The choice to revive the 1971 edition, and not the more recent one, depends on the fact that with Clarke we wanted to reconstruct the same radicalism of the original Papanek.
We were interested in rediscovering the impact and shock that the book caused when it first came out, without those second thoughts which, fifteen years later, led him, for example, to dilute certain messages or to tone down his characteristic vis polemical in some passages".
Half a century of editorial vacuum has helped, among other things, to accredit Papanek as a researcher, when instead his identity was quite another.
"Yup. Papanek was a designer and certainly not an academic. His was avibrant writing, almost spoken, moved by the urgency and imperative of commitment.
He created neologisms, he didn't cite the sources, which in fact are almost impossible to reconstruct. he was imprecise and occasionally made blunders. For example, at a certain point in his invective against De Stijl and good taste, a certain Wijdveldt appears, author of 'chairs, tables and stools' in Holland who, as we explain in a note, can only be Rietveld…”.
“Every man is a designer. Almost everything we do is design”: this incipit has become the active principle assimilated by the main design theorists today.
“That's true, but let's not forget that in another incipit, the one in the preface of the essay, Papanek accuses industrial design of being 'of all professions, one of the most harmful' and of 'preparing gaudy nonsense touted by advertising experts.
This analysis of his two faces - design on altars and, at the same time, in the dust - takes place at a radical moment for design theories.
These were the years of militant denunciations by Ralph Nader, Rachel Carson and Vance Packard, of Baudrillard's attack on the consumer society.
And, again, the years in which design criticism changed pace and came to identify design as a crisis factor: for Papanek, industrial design as it was known then had to end up embracing a perspective holistic.
Without Papanek, today we would not speak of an ontological turning point in design.
The strength of that thought lies in the critical awareness that it somehow asks to develop: if we are all designers, it is not only the professional who must be aware of the political, social and ecological consequences of his work, but everyone.
Papanek's is meant to be a moral lesson”.
What would Papanek think today of makers, fab-labs and all those communities to which design often looks with diffidence if not snobbery?
“He'd like them. Papanek, in his analysis, goes to discover the world and non-Western cultures </ strong>, spreading the idea that design is a factor of transformation of society, and as such it can only be local.
Makers and fab-labs work inspired by an idea of process and sharing that he would appreciate.
After all, Papanek was linked to the counterculture, his design is often a form of do-it-yourself </ em>, seeking solutions to problems in an interdisciplinary key. For Papanek, design is always a form of negotiation”.
Why did he have little luck in Italy?
“At the time of its publication, a famous review by Gui Bonsiepe on Casabella labeled the essay as a weak rhetorical gesture. Yet there were closenesses with certain research of the time, with the political commitment of a Enzo Mari for example and a certain anthropological approach defended by Superstudio.
But slowly the message passed, and today he is considered a pioneer”.
Who are Papanek's heirs today?
“Anyone who promotes and preaches the concept of care in design and takes charge of environmental issues.
I am thinking of the projects reviewed by Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn in the podcast and book Design Emergency, for example. Or at the exhibition - it was 2007 - of the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, Design for the other 90%: design today focuses on the rich minority of another minority geography, the West, when instead it should be concerned with the rest of the world, with those who really need it.
The reparative design, the culture of reuse and upcycling are certainly Papanek's heirs".
Papanek's revolution was to shift the axis of design, from consumption to need.
How much did the fact that he was a young Austrian immigrant who fled Nazism affect Papanek's thinking?
“He certainly had an impact: when you arrive as a foreigner in a country, define your thoughts in a continuous confrontation with your roots and the culture of the place.
Perhaps, only an immigrant like him could write Design for the Real World. From his frail state of him, he saw things that others could not grasp ”.
Papanek died before seeing the first iPhone and smartphones: what would he have thought?
“He was not a Luddite, he did not reject technology, nor was he an advocate of that degrowth that has become a recent obsession of certain currents of design.
All the possible tools that time made available should end up in his ideal toolbox. He didn't have a moralistic approach.
As he already does in his book, he would have condemned the planned obsolescence of devices, showing us that design has not yet lost the vices of the time".