CHAIRMAN MAU

Bruce Mau is a quietly charismatic man of 45 who dresses in pajama-esque black, looks like a slightly svelter Orson Welles and talks as rapidly as a high-end computer salesman. Mau--yes, pronounced "Mao"--doesn't seem like a revolutionary. But he is: a design revolutionary who wants to obliterate our most cherished ideas about design itself--starting with the notion that what things look like is really important. His latest project, called (in Mauist fashion) "Massive Change," is a huge, stupefyingly eclectic multimedia exhibition on "the future of global design," consisting entirely of other people's work. Its slogan: "What will we do now that we can do anything?" (It's at the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia through Jan. 3.) We're not talking cell phones you can shave with or solar-powered massage slippers, but visionary stuff like "nanotech military suits that heal wounds," aerogel (the lightest solid material yet made) and a replacement human nose growing in a beaker. The show has gotten favorable reviews, spiked attendance--the skateboarder set loves it--and, after urgent negotiations over cost and logistics, is scheduled to travel to Chicago and Toronto.

Mau's own work is almost as varied as the contents of "Massive Change." In a big open loft on the edge of Toronto's Chinatown, he and his staff of about 50 are currently busy with an entire 320-acre public park to be built 40 minutes north of downtown Toronto, a collaboration with the architect Frank Gehry on a biodiversity museum in Panama and signage for the revamped Museum of Modern Art in New York. The secret to this daunting variety of activity, Mau says, is searching out projects concerning matters he knows little about, rethinking everything from the ground up and, above all, avoiding any preconceptions about "look." "I want to liberate design from the visual," Mau says, and adds --with characteristic contradiction, "But if you do that right, it turns out beautiful."

An art-school dropout who started his studio in 1985 by creating--ironically--a look for the esoteric Zone Books, Mau had no qualifications for graphic design. "So naturally I figured I could do anything that I had no qualifications for." Mau grew up in Sudbury, a dreary mining town five hours north of Toronto. "I never heard the word 'design' until I was in college," he says. After a stint at the ultra-hip London design firm Pentagram, Mau returned to Canada to set up his own studio, with one employee in a two-room apartment. Now he lives with his wife and three children in a "normal" house, owns a mini-van ("What else?"), but often walks an hour to work, where small teams of junior designers operate autonomously in different corners of the loft. He darts back and forth among them like a Montessori teacher among preschoolers.

Not everyone regards Mau with the same collegial awe as his staff, many of whom affectionately call the studio "Bruce Mau University." Some in the design business think his nudging design into politics ("We want to bring design to social matters" is how he puts it) is pretentious, if not seditious. Others reckon he's got a bit of a cult going up in that loft, and the Inter-net thrums with wicked critiques. ("Allow events to change you," Mau urges on his Web site's "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth." Translation by a blogger: "Could swear this was a Rod McKuen poem.") And his projects have run into practical problems: "Massive Change" lost its prospective Los Angeles venue partly over the cost of shipping and installing, said to be about $500,000.

Some Vancouverites are worried not only about the cost of staging the exhibition at the VAG, but also about the carte blanche Mau seems to have gotten from the museum in putting it on. The museum responds that "Massive Change" has been a legit curatorial collaboration from day one. But with a kind of jujitsu reaction to an opponent's lunge, Mau answers in his own way, "Those are fair criticisms. All criticism is fair. We've taken on more than anyone really can, more than is possible to deal with. But we're willing to take the risk." Which is what he's always done. So far, it's always worked.