Bruce Mau: Life Style

Reviews by Stuart Bailey
908 words5 min read

The title, curtain-cloth binding and physical bulk of Life Style invoke fashion, indulgence and pomposity. This first impression is misleading; any attempted irony is wide of the mark. Rather than passively decorating the world, the book argues for a kind of design that actively shapes it – that ‘styles life’. Like S,M,L,XL, it is essentially the portfolio of a medium-size studio with a big worldview, and shares the earlier book’s experiments with language and layout to enhance rather than obscure content. Despite the obvious family resemblance, however, Life Style is essentially S,M,L,XL’s engaging younger brother. Much has been made of Mau’s approach having more in common with other architects than graphic designers, but Life Style essentially reflects the smaller scale of designing books rather than buildings. The more time spent with this book, the more intimate it becomes.

Describing the book as an active field of research, Mau begins with an ambitious inventory of prevailing social characteristics (a depressing list: surveillance, franchise, celebrity, violence, spin …). Then comes the practical work from the studio’s fifteen-year existence, organised first by theme, then chronology. The first job was a remarkably fortunate commission from Sanford Kwinter, an editor who has since become the practice’s key client, friend, champion and mirror. All future preoccupations of studio seem to be condensed into this initial project – the design of a new cultural journal, ‘Zone’. An intense period of research and collaboration yielded a cinematic approach to book design – the closest the studio has to a signature style. This is followed by a timely section on the nature of identity in the context of universal logo-saturation. Studies of contemporary icons (Bond, Bowie, Madonna) precede the studio’s work for such as the NAi in Rotterdam, and a variety of North American museums, galleries, shops and companies. The repeated emphasis of the office as research lab is at its most convincing here. New commissions are seen as opportunities for personal engagement with a new subject. Clients take on the role of teachers, then form and content develop in tandem. Of course, this only works if the job has substance in the first place. Fortunately, Kwinter, Koolhaas and Gehry seem to have both directly and indirectly supplied a continuous stream of worthy publishing and exhibition work.


The limits of reproducing printed matter are recognised and worked around. Projects are presented true to their nature, or in a way that emphasizes particular features. For example: whole spreads are devoted to blow-ups of book jackets, demonstrating typographic detailing and special colour treatments; a few pages later the same books are photographed as part of a landscape of books, now illustrating object quality and their relationship to other publications in the series. Other than a rejected proposal for the redesign of the Universal Studios logo, however, there are – unsurprisingly but disappointingly – few examples of failed work. One book cover is reproduced 10mm tall and described as ‘one of the worst the studio has ever done’. Funny, but it would have been better to see it properly and hear why and how it ended up that way. Surely that’s the spirit of research.

Mau’s prose is consistently cold; even corporate. It draws heavily on his mentors – McLuhan, Cage, Koolhaas – with little of their humour. He even makes laughing in the studio sound clinical. Although lucid, it can become exhausting, the only relief provided by occasional ‘life stories’ – short personal asides set in big friendly black serif type on pure white pages. Mau is also fond of aphorisms and lists, which can be effective when combined, such as his ‘Incomplete Manifesto for Growth’ (a talking point in ‘I.D.’ magazine a couple of years ago), but after the technique is employed three or four times, it begins to irritate. Particularly the list of a hundred imaginary fonts which probably seemed like a good idea after a few drinks (‘a font that sings the plaintive songs of lonely whales’), but soon become banal to the sober reader.


Unfashionably, Mau respects both authors and readers. He aims to produce complex – rather than complicated – work, involving multiple layers of organization and meaning which are not always immediately evident. While basic text and image are always legible, he suggests, certain aspects will only reveal themselves after time spent reading and navigating the work, ultimately making it a richer, living thing. At face value this sounds dubiously vague, but ‘Life Style’ amply demonstrates the idea itself. It is driven by the kind of energy and intelligence alien to the majority of design publications, and avoids cynicism. By describing his and the studio’s everyday preoccupations, the book sketches the current ecology of graphic design, and hints what it could be in the future. This is neatly outlined by the studio’s most recent boundary-crossing project ‘Tree City’, where typical Mau processes are applied to their first strictly non-graphic design project – a new Toronto park landscape. Their proposal was accepted on the day the book was completed.

It would be nice (however unlikely) to imagine such a work reaching the hands of potential design commissioners, particularly publishers. In this sense, maybe the catch-all title and seductive tactility are necessary after all, but there is a style-mag picture reproduced here that shows a reclining model using ‘S,M,L,XL’ as a designer-pillow. It would be a shame to see ‘Life Style’ reduced to a similar fate.

  • Born York, UK, 1973. Studied graphic design, Reading, UK, 1991-95. Part of the first group of participants at the Werkplaats Typografie, Arnhem, NL, 1998-2000. Dot Dot Dot magazine editing with Peter Biľak from 2000. Currently leading double life between New York and L.A. Also currently a failed musician.