Book List of the Week

10 Great Books on Product Design: Alice Rawsthorn’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter August 12, 2013
Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune design critic
View Alice Rawsthorn’s Book List

“Product design may not have as erudite or provocative a critical culture as graphics or architecture, but it is so rich and complex a subject that it has inspired some wonderful books,” the International Herald Tribune’s design critic, Alice Rawsthorn, declares in the introduction to her book list. She sent along ten examples of great books on product design that prove her point.

One of the many highlights of the list is Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (also on Tim Brown and Gijs Bakker’s book lists), from 1971. Rawsthorn comments, “Papanek explains clearly and persuasively that design should be more honest, humane, responsible, empowering, and inclusive, less about showy styling, and more about improving the quality of all of our lives, not least those who are disadvantaged, disabled, or excluded. Countless books have since been published on sustainable and inclusive design, but every designer should still read this one.”

There is also Design and Truth by philosopher Robert Grudin, which “names and shames the heroes and villains, respectively, of design history,” according to Rawsthorn. She quotes Grudin: “Poor design is symptomatic either of inadequate insight or of a fraudulent and exploitative strategy of production. If good design tells the truth, poor design tells a lie, a lie usually related, in one way or another, to the getting or abuse of power.” By way of illustration, Rawsthorn says, Grudin offers “a dazzling range of references, from the invention of the word ‘designare’ in ancient Rome to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Palazzo Te in Mantua, his own beloved 1956 Norton Dominator 99 motorcycle, the Twin Towers in New York, and an oversized fridge that fell on—and nearly crushed—a handyman called Les, who was hauling it out of the Grudins’ kitchen.”

Hello World by Alice Rawsthorn; designed by Irma Boom, 2013 (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

Anther title on the list is Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom’s 704-page, 2-inch-high, 1.5-inch-wide, and 1-inch-thick Biography in Books (scheduled to be reprinted this fall), which Rawsthorn calls “one of my favorite examples of a book as an extraordinary object.” Rawsthorn cites Sergio Polano’s monograph on Achille Castiglioni, noting that its pages “read—and look—like a potted history of late 20th-century Italy, and role models of inspired and inspiring product design.” Also included are critic Reyner Banham’s essays from the 1950s through 1970s collected in Design by Choice; Jasper Morrison’s A World Without Words (the assembled contents of a slideshow the British product designer gave in lieu of a planned lecture in 1988); and even C. J. Chivers’s The Gun, whose author, Rawsthorn comments, “did not intend to write about design, but ended up doing so . . . because it turned out to be inseparable from his chosen theme.” The result, which includes “an adroit analysis of ‘good’ design in the AK-47, and ‘bad’ in its flawed U. S. equivalent, the Colt M-16,” is “one of the best books on product design I have ever read.”

Alice Rawsthorn has authored or contributed to 15 books on design topics, ranging from a highly praised biography of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent to an examination of the product, jewelry, aircraft, and other designs of Marc Newson and a book on product designer Hella Jongerius. Her most recent book, Hello World, was published this spring by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin (and also reviewed earlier this month on Designers & Books as a Notable Design Book of 2013). Subtitled "Where Design Meets Life," it explores the effect of the designed environment on humanity and takes a look at how not only designers but also scientists, farmers, warlords, hackers, and activists throughout history have used design to achieve different ends.

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