The Politics of Display: Review of Vitra Design Museum’s Papanek Exhibition, by Anja Neidhardt

Design is political. This realisation began to gain currency among many young designers around 50 years ago. In his work, too, Victor Papanek (1923–1998) focused on the political levels of what designers do. He himself was an industrial designer – and at the same time a harsh critic of his own discipline. This theme is just as topical today and is currently being explored in an exhibition focusing on Papanek at the Vitra Design Museum.

Exhibition view. Photo: Anja Neidhardt.

In 1970, protesting students and activists disrupted the International Design Conference in Aspen, forcing the participants to vote on new resolutions that stood for more social and ecopolitical commitment. Victor Papanek, like many of his contemporaries, was convinced that not only functional and formal features and questions on the usability or saleability of a design had to be taken into account, but also its effects on society and the environment – as well as the interaction between the two.

Exhibition view. Photo: Francisco Zea Garcia.

Curated by Amelie Klein, the exhibition “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design” focuses, among other things, on the question of “how we can translate [his ideas] into the twenty first century”. In addition to his work, it also shows projects of his students and colleagues, as well as a series of “recent works that carry Papanek’s theses into the twenty-first century and consider them in a present-day context,” as the exhibition organisers say. To what extent does this aspiration apply to the exhibition itself? And how can Papanek’s ruthless criticism and uncompromising designs be translated into the present in the form of an exhibition?

Exhibition view. Photo: Anja Neidhardt.

Honest Design

In one of the three exhibition areas, all of which are accessible from the foyer, a timeline maps Papanek’s life by using newspaper articles, letters, publications, photographs, and other documents in a historical, sociopolitical context. His story and that of the (Western) world are narrated in parallel and connections established between the two: in 1939 Papanek fled from Nazi Vienna to New York, where the World’s Fair was presenting visions for the future. After studying industrial design, he embarked on a freelance career in 1946, designing affordable furniture for consumers in the post-war period. During the 1960s, he then developed his philosophy of design and new approaches for a more equitable discipline, which he summarised in his probably most famous publication “Design for the Real World” (1971). His critical attitude towards consumerism is reflected in designs that he often developed in collaboration with his students and colleagues, such as TVs and radios for African countries or electric vehicles.

Prototype of a taxi for wheelchair users developed by Volvo in 1976 in collaboration with Papanek, on display in the exhibition. Photo: Anja Neidhardt.

The exhibition shows a thematically arranged selection of these works. The section that deals with designs for children presents the Disposable Car Seat by Victor Papanek and James Hennessey (1973), as well as the toys Fingermajig and Threading (1965–1970), which were designed by Jorma Vennola to promote fine motor skills and spatial thinking. On the subject of accessibility, the exhibition also has on display the prototype of a taxi for wheelchair users developed by Volvo in 1976 in collaboration with Papanek and the eating aids developed in the early 1970s by Angelika Lukat and Kurt Backfisch in consultation with old people’s homes, rehabilitation centres, and kindergartens.

Unfortunately, the accessibility of the exhibition itself has not been considered thoroughly. The original notes exhibited in the staircase remain invisible to users of the elevator. The wall texts often hang at an eye level of 1.60 metres, making them inaccessible to shorter people or wheelchair users. In addition, the content is presented primarily in printed or spoken German and English language. Offers for visitors who communicate in other languages can be found in an app that is only mentioned briefly. This is far from “honest design” following Papanek’s definition. [1] Even major establishments such as the German Historical Museum in Berlin or the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden have found ways and means to integrate videos with sign language, models to touch and texts in more than two languages into their exhibitions.

Notes by Victor Papanek, exhibited in the staircase. Photo: Anja Neidhardt.

Criticise and Act

While Victor Papanek worked with disadvantaged groups such as children, the elderly, migrants, and people in the global south, he did not recognise women and LGBTQI* as groups that experience discrimination in our society. And this at a time when the second wave of feminism was causing a global stir and the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 were marking the beginning of the gay and lesbian movement. Here, the exhibition adopts the critical view that constituted Papanek’s thinking and tells of his reaction to a suggestion by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. In 1971, when he was dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts, she presented him with the idea of a design programme by women for women. [2] Papanek vehemently rejected the proposal. However, the dispute ended in de Bretteville’s favour and the course was established.

Illustrations by Vistor Papanek, shown at the exhibition. Photo: Anja Neidhardt.

Elsewhere the exhibition presents without any comment “humorous” illustrations by Papanek that show him as a designer at work who is either inspired or distracted by a woman. It also ignores the fact that his language excluded women systematically, since he always chose the pronoun “he” when speaking about a designer. [3] The very first exhibition text speaks about the “social, moral and ethical responsibility of the designer” demanded by Papanek – at this point the German text is interrupted by an asterisk. A Gender Star? The hack in German language that aims to make it more inclusive? No. A reference: “All person and job descriptions for which the male version is used in this exhibition, apply correspondingly to the female version as well.” Did this exhibition not dedicate itself to the question of “how we can translate [Papanek’s ideas] into the twenty first century”? So why not use the gender neutral language, following the example of today’s generation of young, responsible-minded and socio-critical activists and designers?

In recent decades, the movements have continued to evolve, which is why the talk in the accompanying programme on the subject of design and gender should also be held by presenters whose feminism is intersectional. Griselda Flesler, who heads the department of design and gender studies at the University of Buenos Aires or Luiza Prado and Ece Canli from Decolonising Design, who combine feminism and decolonial work, would be potential candidates for this. And why is there actually no event related to the topic of design education, especially since Papanek himself was teaching a lot? Why not invite expert design educators like Dori Tunstall and Danah Abdulla to a public discussion instead of only giving them the chance to speak in a conversation for the exhibition catalogue?

Jim Chuchus’ “All Oppression is Connected!” shown in the exhibition. Photo: Francisco Zea Garcia.

Translated to the Present

Although the exhibition tirelessly points out how relevant teamwork was for Victor Papanek and highlights his interactions with other “important” actors in a media installation, its focus lies unmistakably on him. His name boasts on posters, tickets, online banners and the catalogue – even in combination with visualisations of objects that have not been designed by him. At the risk of false associations imprinting themselves on the minds of viewers.

While Victor Papanek was not the only one who called for a greater sense of responsibility in design, he was, according to the exhibition organisers, “without a doubt […] in the vanguard of this movement”. If we translate Papanek’s thinking into the present, then we should call precisely such hierarchies into question. By trying to locate individuals “in the vanguard” and then celebrate them, we are not doing justice to those who are quieter, weaker or less privileged, educated or articulate, nor to the movement that develops its true power through the interaction of all participants.


[1] Apart from this, there is no statement to be found about how this exhibition, which sees consumption in a critical way, is positioned regarding the fact that it is shown in the private museum of a company that produces so-called design classics to the financially well-off middle and upper class.

[2] She wanted to find out what it means for women to be active in the field of design. And she was convinced that women among themselves and in a safe environment would learn different from and with each other than in a mixed program.

[3] Design researcher Natalie Terese Balthrop analyses this aspect in her paper “Feminist Perspectives of Socially Responsible Design: A Case Study for Sustainable Health Enterprises” (2012).


Within the frame of our next depatriarchise design *!Lab!* on 9 March 2019 we will conduct a field trip to “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design” and discuss it through an intersectional feminist point of view. You are interested in participating? Find out more and register here


A former version of this text was published in issue 281 (Jan/Feb 2019) of the design magazine form.

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