Papanek was widely admired for his advocacy of socially responsible design. He once summed up his chosen field this way: "The only important thing about design is how it relates to people."
In remembering Papanek, Honorary IDSA member Ralph Caplan, remarked that "He was the first industrial designer to really begin to talk critically about design as a force for good and suggesting that, conventionally design wasn't necessarily that."
Papanek was the J.L. Constant Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Kansas since 1981 and was author of eight books on design. In his revolutionary and best-selling Design for the Real World, first published in 1971, and since translated into 23 languages, Papanek suggested something both startling and prophetic: the necessity for designers to adopt a morally responsible and holistic approach, adapting technology to the individual's real needs and tapping into the wisdom and experience of other societies, particularly those of the Third World.
He traveled around the world giving lectures about his ideas on ecologically sound designs to serve the poor, the disabled and the elderly. He was closely connected with folk art and crafts and studied Oriental, Eskimo and American Indian cultures to better understand basic human needs and their relationship to design.
"All designed tools and objects are sort of extensions of human abilities, and they do tend to make life richer for us," Papanek told the Kansas City Star in an interview in 1994. But, he added, "an awful lot of designs, especially in this country, make life a lot more inconvenient. I'm thinking, for instance, of high-fidelity units that have so many switches and toggles and buttons and things that they confuse most people.
Papanek was born in Vienna, Austria, and went to public schools in England. He studied design and architecture at the Cooper Union in New York City and did postgraduate studies in design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He taught at many different institutions including the Ontario College of Art and the Royal Academy of Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before joining the KU faculty, he headed the design departments at the Kansas City Art Institute and the California Institute of Arts.
He received numerous awards and honors, such as a Distinguished Designer Fellowship from the NEA and the UN (UNESCO) Award for Outstanding Design of Developing Nations. He created products for such organizations as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and for the World Health Organization.
Papanek is survived by his former wife, Harlanne Herdman, and two daughters, Nicolette Papanek and Jennifer Satu Papanek. The family requests that memorial donations be sent to Greenpeace and Amnesty International.
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