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Victor Joseph Papanek was a designer and educator who became a strong advocate of the socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools, and community infrastructures. He disapproved of manufactured products that were unsafe, showy, maladapted, or essentially useless. His products, writings, and lectures were collectively considered an example and inspired many designers. Papanek was a philosopher of design and as such he was an untiring, eloquent promoter of design aims and approaches that would be sensitive to social and ecological considerations.
"Design has become the most powerful tool with which people shape their tools and environments and, by extension, society and themself." -Papanek
Papanek was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1923. He attended public school in England and immigrated to the US in 1930s, where he studied design and architecture. Papanek studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona in the 1940’s. He earned his bachelor's degree at Cooper Union in New York and did graduate studies in design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Papanek was interested in humankind as such and pursued an interest in anthropology, living and working for several years with Navajos, Inuit, and Balinese. Indeed, Papanek felt that when design is simply technical or merely style-oriented, it loses touch with what is truly needed by people.
Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change is a book by Papanek published in 1971. Papanek addresses an audience that is much broader then just designers or social visionaries. He analyzes the attempts of designers to avoid the so called “useless product,” and offers a blueprint for responsible design in an overpopulated world deficient in energy and resources.
In Design for the Real World, Papanek wrote: "Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer." With his interest in all aspects of design and how they affected people and the environment, Papanek felt that much of what was manufactured in the U.S. was inconvenient, often frivolous and even unsafe.
As Papanek traveled around the world, he gave lectures about his ideas for ecologically sound design and designs to serve the poor, the disabled, the elderly and other minority segments of society. He wrote or co-wrote eight books. How could the designer, who must (like others) make a living actually serve ‘real needs’ of human beings? “I have tried to demonstrate that by freely giving 10 percent of their time, talents, and skills the designer can help.” In other words, a willingness to volunteer.
Papanek writes extensively about how design and the environment (what we now refer to as climate change). He argues that while design can have profound, negative consequences on the earth and humanity, instead, we can harness the power of design and use it to improve the world around us. “Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society.”
In another book by Papanek, Nomadic Furniture 2, he writes:
“We all live in a world of 1 year leases, 3 month fashions, and jobs that may mean relocation every few months. And yet, we try to live with order and beauty of our own making, but without giving up our flexibility. Even “settling down” smacks of split-level boredom in suburbia. We feel that much is wrong in our society and that seeking refuge in sleek objects is a cop-out.
The screeching tv commercials and the non-stop assault on our senses via billboards and advertisements have led many to revulsion from the mere owning of material things. People are also increasingly aware of how they have been manipulated by fashion. Young people especially have turned around clothing and their needs for furniture, so that uncluttered personal freedom becomes our goal, rather than an object-laden showplace.”