Designing His Life: Victor Papanek

with Alison J. Clarke

Alison J. Clarke’s new book, “Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World,” is the biography of the Austrian-American trailblazer in social design. In the late 1960s, Victor Papanek began writing his seminal “Design for the Real World” which argued for socially and ecologically sustainable design long before the ensuing movements years later. Published in 1971, the impact and relevance of his book persists globally.

As a teenager, Victor Papanek fled Nazi-occupied Austria with his mother to land in New York. Before he even began his studies at Cooper Union, Papanek’s experiences in Vienna had shaped his socially-responsible outlook. In this podcast, Prof. Clarke explains why, to understand Papanek and his work, she had to examine his life as an Austrian-émigré.

Excerpt from podcast:

“I did become fascinated with how a book [Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World”] that’s never been out of print in 40 years and is still widely cited by young designers as a kind of manifesto because it critiques wasteful consumer culture, environmental damage—how it’s still so prescient. And I set out to really explore where it fits in contemporary discourse around the environment, around sustainability, and I very much hope that my book is not just a traditional biography. I think it had to follow the life of Papanek because it quickly became very clear to me that I couldn’t understand the ideas and the impact of this book without seeing where it fit into his biography as an Austrian-émigré and how he arrived in the US.”

  • Alison J. Clarke is a design historian and social anthropologist. She is Professor of Design History and Theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where she is also Director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation. She has written a number of books, including Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, and contributed to BBC programing. In 2013, BIAAS awarded her a grant to research and complete a biography on Austrian-American designer and theorist Victor Papanek. Her book, Victor Papanek: Designer for the Real World, was published by MIT Press in 2021.