Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek during filming of WNED-TV Channel 17's series "Design Dimensions" in Buffalo, New York, 1961-63 © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation

Victor J. Papanek (1923-1998) designer, educator and author, was born in Vienna, Austria escaping to the United States in 1939 following the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany. Educated at the Cooper Union New York in architectural design, Papanek claimed to have apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s as well as working briefly with fellow Austrian émigré architect Frederick Kiesler.

Early on in his career be became a follower and ally of Buckminster Fuller who wrote the preface to the first English language edition of Papanek’s widely read and seminal publication Design for the Read World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971). The book’s ground-breaking ideas and uncompromising critique of contemporary, profit-drive design culture initially divided the design community. Ultimately, however, the polemic was an enormous success: translated into over 20 languages and published globally, it remains one the most widely read design books to date and has never fallen out of print.

Victor Papanek, Tetrakaidecahedral movable playground structure, designed together with one of Papanek's postgraduate students and local parents, teachers, and children, 1973-75. Illustrated in The Green Imperative, 1995. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor Papanek Foundation
CP-1 Cube, prototype of a learning environment for children with cerebral palsy, 1968. Developed by design students Barbro Kulvik-Siltavuori, Zoltan Popovic, Yrjö Sotamaa, and Jorma Vennola, under the guidance of Victor Papanek, Suomenlinna, Helsinki. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor Papanek Foundation
CP-1 Cube, prototype of a learning environment for children with cerebral palsy, 1968. Developed by design students Barbro Kulvik-Siltavuori, Zoltan Popovic, Yrjö Sotamaa, and Jorma Vennola, under the guidance of Victor Papanek, Suomenlinna, Helsinki. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor Papanek Foundation
Victor J. Papanek, "Geta-like elevated slippers I designed for my mother in 1948," illustrated in Design for Human Scale, 1983. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor Papanek Foundation

In the course of his career, Papanek applied the principles of socially responsible design in collaborative projects with concerns such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization. He considered design as a political tool in recently decolonised nations as well as peripheral communities in Europe and the USA. 

Victor J. Papanek, "Function Unit X-3: Reading, Sleeping, Resting, Lounging," Design for a multifunctional chair, 1946–48. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation

A polemicist of both words and objects, who used his designs to provoke the large-scale rethinking of design’s social purpose in everyday life, Papanek’s career spanned the shifting terrain of twentieth-century design culture. It is telling that his most experimental work took place in the setting of universities and colleges in politically conservative American states. 

Along with the influential Design for the Real World (1971), Papanek’s publications (co-authored with James Hennessey) include Nomadic Furniture I (1973), Nomadic Furniture II (1974), and How Things Don’t Work (1977). He is sole author of Design for Human Scale (1983) and The Green Imperative (1995).

 

Jorma Vennola, "Fingermajig" tactile children's toy, 1970 (Photo: Ben Nienhuis)
Design for Human Scale (First edition, 1983); Miljön och miljonerna: Design som tjänst eller förtjänst (Bonniers, 1970); Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (Pantheon, 1971)