Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design

As we enter the last few months of the year, discussion of sustainability, inclusion, and social justice are stronger themes in our society than, well, ever. It is these themes that Victor Papanek first penned in his key work, Design for the Real World – the most widely read book about design ever published.

Papanek was, and still is, one of the most influential pioneers of a socially and ecologically oriented approach to design in the twentieth century. He designed a multitude of objects where the designs benefited communities and individuals, he lectured around the world, and he used pointed language and humour to criticize a blind belief in consumerism and adapt the ideas of the generation of 1968 to address practical issues of everyday life for a great number of people – Papanek was a true purveyor of a new and critical understanding of design.

From now until 10th March 2019, the Vitra Design Museum will present the first large retrospective focusing on the designer, author, and activist Victor J. Papanek (1923–1998). The exhibition includes rare exhibits such as drawings, objects, films, manuscripts, and prints, some of which have never before been presented.

Alongside these rare pieces by Papanek, you will find work from his contemporaries between the 1960s to 1980s, including George Nelson, Richard Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall McLuhan. Plus, contemporary works from the areas of critical and social design which help to provide an insight into the lasting impact of Papanek’s work and influence. Modern day work centres around themes of global climate change, fluid gender identities, and the economic realities of migration.

The exhibition is organised into four sections offering an in-depth look at Papanek’s biography – his life and his work, and everything in between and after. Perhaps more aptly described, the exhibition is a retrospective as well as a themed exhibition. Looking at Papanek the person means we can truly understand the significance of the large theme he introduced – that design is a political tool. Despite being revolutionary in Papanek’s time, and generally accepted now, design is still a tool for political transformation that must consider social and ethical points of view. What Papanek taught a worldwide network lives on through his influence, and through this exhibition.

This exhibition is a cooperation between the Vitra Design Museum and the Barcelona Design Museum, in collaboration with the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, and is funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.


Victor Papanek ‘The Politics of Design’ – Installation view © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Norbert Miguletz

Words by Eliza Frost

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