For someone whose graphic touch is sought the world over, designer Bruce Mau has a Toronto studio that is surprisingly spare, barely even warehouse chic. The modest black-onwhite sign at the door, elegant in classic (Trade Gothic) font, could be for an accountant. Don’t be fooled. Modesty is a Mau-ist weapon. It allows him to avoid the superfluous, to be choosy about clients and, most important, to immerse himself and his 25-member team in each project with the intensity of the born again. “We take on a lot of things we don’t know how to do,” says Mau. “And we produce things no one else does because we come to it as naive characters.” A compact, soft-spoken man with a pumpkinsized grin, the 40-year-old Mau is one of Canada’s most successful, if littleknown, cultural exporters. He first made his mark 15 years ago as the designer of New York City-based Zone Books, a high-end imprint specializing in visual art and urban culture. Through innovative texture and typeface, Mau made academic books sensual, almost erotic. And soon the international design world was beating a path to his Toronto studio. Clients include such world-renowned architects as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas. Mau’s logos and imagery open the doors to cultural institutions in Toronto (the Art Gallery of Ontario among them), Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Rotterdam and London. They are an impressive testament to someone who grew up on a farm outside Sudbury, Ont., and as a teenager in the mid-1970s, hunted and ran his own trapline to help put food on the table. An artist—with the eye of a hunter?—Mau has
made the leap from collaborations with avantgarde dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov to the Toronto Maple Leafs (he created the giant murals of sports fans at the Air Canada Centre). The one constant in his career is transformation. It began at high-school graduation when he chucked electronics training to go back and take an entire year of art, the precursor to a tempestuous 18month stint—the rebel from the boonies—at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. From there on, each project had to be life-altering in order to be tackled. The birth six years ago of the first of three daughters with wife Bisi Williams has provoked some introspection—“I’m learning to take my place in line,” Mau says. But family life has not altered the desire to challenge the precepts of his time.
This month saw him publish Life Style, a 626page Marshall McLuhan-style collage of imagery and observations as seen through the work of Bruce Mau Design. Earlier this year, he won (with Koolhaas) the international competition to create a 320-acre urban park on the old Downsview military base in suburban Toronto. “Downsview was a declaration we couldn’t design a definitive park,” says Mau disarmingly. So his team went back in time and devised a plan to plant and plow the old base under, repeatedly, to return the soil to what it was before the military arrived, to prepare it for the circles of trees that Mau envisions and the natural evolution that will come. It is a plan for a neighbourhood also in a kind of mid-life transition. And a park for a hip cat who grew up in a forest: performance art with nature holding the palette.
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