Notable Design Books: Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: April Reviews

By Steve Kroeter April 4, 2013

10 Notable Design Books of 2013, April

To kick off spring, Designers & Books is posting its first compilation of Notable Design Books of 2013. We invited a group of esteemed design community members—our Book Board—to select titles published in 2013 that they think are particularly worth noting. The Book Board will make recommendations throughout the year and we will post a monthly round-up of the results. You can also view the complete list of Notable Design Books of 2013, in our signature grid format, and watch it grow each month.

Book Board members who have participated in selecting titles for our April post are Allison ArieffMark Lamster, Ellen LuptonPhil Patton, and Norman Weinstein. Among the titles are a novel built around car design, books on architects both famous and neglected, a survey of contemporary graphic design in India, and a collection of unusual urban maps.

The ten books featured this month are listed below, followed by comments from our Book Board members. Clicking on a book title or cover image will take you to a full bibliographic profile of the book.

Phil Patton

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang

by Paula Champa
Houghton Mifflin (March 2013)

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Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times, New York)

Novels about design are rare, novels about car design rarer still. Of course, The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Paula Champa’s story about great cars of the past and new ones of the future, is about much more. It is ultimately about time, memory, and change.

Built around a mysterious car, the book is also about an entrepreneur redesigning the technology of the automobile for a greener future. Champa has based her novel on reporting and observation of today’s automotive world, from high-tech garages to concours d’elegance where high net-worth collectors assemble.

Ultimately, however, the book is a story about hope and regret, grief and self-expression, wrapped around an old-fashioned mystery. “I mused on this,” Champa writes. “What is a vehicle but a private capsule? One in which the mundane errands and memorable adventures of a life are accomplished. By some alchemy, through this constant association, a mingling, a transmutation, can occur. In memories alone, a car is capable of encapsulating an entire life. Or more than one. . . . I wondered: Do you possess a car, or does it possess you?”

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang by Paula Champa, 2013 (Houghton Mifflin)
Ellen Lupton

Dekho: Conversations on Design in India

by Codesign
Codesign (December 2012–January 2013)

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Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Maryland Institute of Art)

Dekho is a remarkable new book about design in India, edited and designed by Codesign, a brand and communication firm in Gurgaon, India. The book examines work based in culture, research, and economic development. This is not a picture book of slick brands or vernacular truck signs. Instead, it is a thoughtful exploration of the processes and motivations behind a range of practices, from typeface development for diverse linguistic communities to co-design projects with rural craftspeople.

 Open cover of Dekho: Conversations on Design in India. Photo: Codesign

The book is organized as a series of meaty conversations with nine different designers and teams, including Neelakash Kshetrimayum, a type designer reviving a local script, and Lakshmi Murthy, who works with low-literacy communities to create effective social communication. The page designs are active but reader-friendly, set in Peter Bilak's beautiful Greta typeface. The book ends with a series of responses and visual work by Wolfgang Weingart, Stefan Sagmeister, and Casey Reas.

In conversation with type designer Neelakash Kshetrimayum on his first encounter designing for dying Manipuri script Meitei Mayek. Photo: Codesign
In conversation with Lakshmi Murthy on co-designing effective, localized models for social communication with users in rural India. Photo: Codesign

Phil Patton

Design Forward: Creative Strategy and Sustainable Change

by Hartmut Esslinger
ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers (February 2013)

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Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times New York)

The process by which news turns into history is a strange one: nothing ages faster than new technology, for instance. But the personal computer is making its transition to the area of history—the laptop, the PDA, the mobile phone all will follow soon. One recent part of the process is a new book from Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog design (“Frog”), the firm that worked with Apple Design in the 1980s. Esslinger’s book is an illustration of this process in action. (In a token of 1960s, counterculture informality, Esslinger insisted on spelling the name “frogdesign,” with a lowercase initial, which was undone by the firm’s later acquisition by a larger corporation.) Esslinger emphasizes the idea of “strategic design” as a key business discipline. His other clients included Lufthansa, A.T.&T, Louis Vuitton, Sony, and SAP. The book also includes work with his students at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Design Forward, 2013 (ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers)
 Designs for Sony (p. 99). ©Hartmut Esslinger and frog team

Praise for Apple design has tended to focus on Jonathan Ive and his staff and ignore the longstanding, but quite different contributions of Esslinger and Bob Brunner. In a reminder of the company’s earliest days, Esslinger includes photos of “concept” products mocked up for Apple. These early Apple products suggest a wide level of experimentation. They include upright workstations, amazingly contemporary laptops, small computers (“Baby Mac”) and the “MacPhone,” a slate with stylus and telephone handset—attached with a cord.

In retrospect, the question that is clear and is the nature of Apple’s success was figuring out which technologies were mature enough for which designs. The stylus-driven screens, say, or integrated telephones or some of the cooler concepts were not commercially ready in the late 1980s.

 Apple “Baby” Mac. 1985 (p. 145). Photo: ©Hartmut Esslinger and frog team 
 Apple Snow White 3, MacPhone, 1984 (p. 141). Photo: ©Hartmut Esslinger and frog team

There is a consistency in appearance to the concepts. Frog’s achievement was to bring to Apple the idea of a consistent corporate design language, as practiced by Sony and IBM (or Kodak for that matter). Esslinger named his “Snow White.”

The language stipulated the regular use of color, gridded ventilation areas, and consistently radiused corners for all Apple products. Its name referred initially to seven Apple product lines—“dwarves”—that were to be designed but also perhaps an echo of the fairy-tale Snow White. Esslinger had been inspired by the design consistency of Sony and of Braun. But he saw the limits of pure, cold geometric modernism. Snow White evoked “Snow White’s coffin”—the famous nickname given to an iconic Braun radio/record player hi-fi unit.

Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 and Frog’s work for the company soon stopped. Frog went on to work on Job’s start-up, Next.

Apple was only one of the high-tech companies and projects Esslinger and frogdesign worked on. One interesting example, around the same time as Apple’s Newton handheld, was the 1993 A.T.&T. EO “personal communicator.”

It is amazing how fast high-tech projects and products can be forgotten—think of Palm Pilots and CD ROMs. But it is critical that designers record these early days of digital technology to avoid repeating mistakes. Many quirks of design turn out to have been the results of technological limits of the time that ended up embedded in our common standards. And many early ideas that were impractical at the time could now be successfully revived. One of the virtues of Esslinger’s book is to give us a longer-view technological perspective at a time when we narrowly focus on this month’s or even this week’s technological innovations. His lesson is about matching design and technology. 

Norman Weinstein

Experiments with Life Itself: Radical Domestic Architectures between 1937 and 1959

by Francisco González de Canales
Actar (January 2013)

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Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

That much abused term “radical” assumes fresh life in this sensitively written account of five experiments in domestic architecture created against a societal background of war (actual or threatened) and exile. The spotlight is turned largely to the designs of well-known iconoclasts: Charles and Ray Eames, Juan O’Gorman, and Allison and Peter Smithson. But rather than write conventional case studies of their designs for houses, de Canales takes a daring interpretative leap that interfaces the crafting of the formal aesthetic of their domestic designs with the designers’ psychological imperatives to survive threatening times through radical design. The illuminating chapter on O’Gorman’s Mexican cave house masterfully brings together the designer’s desire for a womb-like safe haven with O’Gorman’s deep affection for pre-Hispanic ornamentation. Particularly penetrating is de Canales’s study of the jousting working relationship between the poet Pablo Neruda and architect German Rodriguez Arias. Neruda’s mastery in unpredictably destabilizing many of the fixed facets of Arias’s designs for his three houses wryly reminds us of the extreme challenges an architect can face when his client is a poet as well as unschooled designer.

Experiments with Life Itself, 2013 (Actar)
View of house by Germán Rodriguez Arias for poet Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra, Chile (1943–56), with some of the extensions made by Neruda himself (p. 49). Photo: Luis Poirot
 Charles and Ray Eames’s house from the exterior (p. 106). Photo: Franciso González de Canales
Architect and painter Juan O'Gorman’s house during construction, late 1940s. Visiting O’Gorman are painter Frida Kahlo and Helen Fowler
Mark Lamster

Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light

by Barry Bergdoll et al.
The Museum of Modern Art (March 2013)

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Book Board member Mark Lamster (Dallas Morning News, Design Observer, Architectural Review)

Henri Labrouste essentially invented the modern public library as a typology when he built the Bibliothèque St. Geneviève and then the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in the 19th century. These works, detailed with exceptional Beaux Arts precision—as a draftsman, Labrouste had no equal—first celebrated iron as a structural element in works of grand architectural ambition, suggesting that it could be used in typologies that were not only industrial. For this, he has been understood as a proto-modernist. But as Barry Bergdoll notes in this exceptional book, successive generations have adopted Labrouste and interpreted his work to suit their own ideological proclivities. That is likely to happen again, with the library a typology now being reinvented for a new century.

Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, 2013 (The Museum of Modern Art)
Henri Labrouste (French, 1801-1875). Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1854-1875. View of the reading room. Photo © Georges Fessy
Bibliothèque Nationale, vaulting. Photo © Georges Fessy
Henri Labrouste. Imaginary reconstruction of an ancient city. Perspective view. Date unknown. Graphite, pen, ink, and watercolor on paper. Académie d’Architecture, Paris
Mark Lamster

James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist

by Amanda Reeser Lawrence
Yale University Press (March 2013)

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Mark Lamster (Dallas Morning News, Design Observer, Architectural Review)

James Stirling has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance over the past couple of years, and it's both overdue and unfortunate that he's no longer around to experience it. (He died in 1992, having been tagged with that most unfortunate of labels: "postmodernist.") Not quite a monograph, and not quite a history, but a bit of both, here Reeser Lawrence surveys the arc of Stirling's career by focusing in depth on a series of six projects, some built and others not. While academic studies of this type are typically jargon-ridden and dense to the point of obfuscation, this one is blessedly clear-eyed, written in straightforward and engaging prose that is no less incisive for its transparency. It is serious architectural history as it should be, devoted to a complex and challenging subject that warrants the attention.

James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist, 2013 (Yale University Press)
Stirling and Gowan, University of Leicester (UK) Engineering Building, 1959–63. The lecture hall volumes suspended beneath the administrative and laboratory towers embody solidified space.


James Stirling (firm), Florey Building, The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, UK, 1971
Stirling and Partner, Roma Interrotta. Thirty of Stirling’s own projects are inserted into Sector IV of Noli’s 1748 map of Rome


Norman Weinstein

Luxurious Minimalism: Elegant Interiors

by Fritz von der Schulenburg and Karen Howes
Rizzoli International Publications (March 2013)

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Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

This bravura coffee table book of impeccably photographed international interiors offers bountiful rewards—once you get past the terrifically ambiguous title. Didn’t Thoreau find his Walden pond cabin luxurious and elegant? And what about Zen monks aesthetically sizing up their caves? This is not coyness. No rigorously thoroughgoing definition of interior minimalism (we’re told minimalism is “about light and space”—what isn’t?) is offered. Is it waggish to suggest that what we have here is a portfolio of expensive elegant minimalism? So the book showcases a recently renovated Swedish baroque palace, a Colorado ski lodge, a Loire Valley chateau, and a variety of private estates on both U.S. coasts. The photography is the stuff of dreams, suggesting furniture too fine for even well-behaved children to sit upon;great textured white walls no fingerprints will besmirch.

Luxurious Minimalism: Elegant Interiors, 2013 (Rizzoli International Publications)
Swedish living room with wall hand-painted to resemble paneling. Photo: ©Fritz von der Schulenburg 

Museum-grade interiors abound, perhaps explaining the curiously provocative Brancusi quote concluding the book, “Architecture is inhabited sculpture.”And to be fair, some traditional Shaker interiors intelligently revealing the paradoxically materially poor roots of today’s pricy minimalism are displayed.

Economic factors aside, the deep joy of this book arises from nine astute interviews with the showcased interior designers. Robert Kime cogently discusses his interior designing as textile-inspired. The Palladian roots of designs by Axel and Boris Vervoordt are thoughtfully illuminated. And John Stefanidis declares with winning candor, “Aestheticism can be the enemy of creation.” All interior designers can glean ideas, particularly pertaining to fiercely colored doors, floors, and stairs counterpointing Apollonian white walls, from this lushly expansive survey.

Guest bedroom in Welsh farmhouse. Photo: ©Fritz von der Schulenburg

Allison Arieff

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers

by Becky Cooper
Abrams Image (April 2013)

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Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

To conquer her fear of the immensity of Manhattan, Becky Cooper handed out blank maps of the city to strangers (as well as notable residents like Man on Wire’s aerialist Philippe Petit and the New Yorker’s Patricia Marx) with one simple instruction: Fill it in with whatever best captures your experience of the city. The book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, is the delightful result. (I’ll admit that I kinda love the one that envisions the city as a sea of Starbucks.)


“These maps are street haiku, whose emotions, whether made by the well known or the anonymous, are more moving for being so stylized. My life? You can reduce it to this series of marks right here—and once reduced it has more of its essential tang and meaning, not less.”

 —Adam Gopnik, from the foreword to Mapping Manhattan


Mapping Manhattan, 2013 (Abrams Image)
My Lost Gloves by Patricia Marx. Photo ©2013 Becky Cooper
Starbucks Mappuccino. Photo: ©2013 Becky Cooper
Mark Lamster

The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary

by Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 2013)

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Book Board member Mark Lamster (Dallas Morning News, Design Observer, Architectural Review)

The Pinecone tells the story of an heiress from a corner of the verdant English countryside who devotes herself to building a small parish church of considerable charm and idiosyncracy. Uglow tells the story with such evident affection for her subject that she dispels any doubts the reader might have as to the actual level of genius involved, and opens a window into a time and space that seems at once remote and familiar.


“Sarah Losh’s buildings are Romantic in their powerful expression of sympathy between the human and the natural world, yet Victorian in embodying the layers of history beneath the present, the findings of geology that shook conventional faith, and the concern with death, mutability and transcience. Her favourite symbol, the pinecone, with its promise of rebirth, is also the way into her life and work—as you enter the church and close the oak door behind you, the door-latch is two overlapping cones, carved in wood, touching and swinging apart.”

 —Jenny Uglow, from the prologue to The Pinecone


The Pinecone, 2013 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Phil Patton

Various Small Books Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha

by Jeff Brouws, et al., eds.
The MIT Press (March 2013)

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Book Board Member Phil Patton (New York Times)

When artist Ed Ruscha offered up books full of his dry documentary photo views of gas stations and parking lots in the early 1960s, he could not have dreamed that he was foreshadowing not just typical content but also a typical business model for art-book publishing in the next century. Self-published in small numbers, Ruscha’s books bore such titles as Twentysix Gas Stations, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, A Few Palm Trees, and Various Small Fires. Ruscha’s books began as art, but their approach was soon preempted by others and became a means for analyzing and studying design. The subject matter of the photos in the books—such as gas stations and retail storefronts—was also emerging as subject matter for architectural study. Ruscha inspired both subject matter and approach. An example was Steven Izenour’s book White Tower, a study of the typology of the hamburger chain buildings. The Sunset strip views inspired Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s students of architecture and urbanism in the 1970s as an analytical tool.

Now, a new volume appears treating the books inspired by Ruscha’s books. That is, a book about books about books. The dizzying mirror in a mirror effect suggests the way Ruscha’s work has resounded in the visual culture. Ruscha’s gas stations inspired Jeff Brouws, one of the book’s editors, when he was setting out as a photographer.

Various Small Books Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha, 2013 (The MIT Press)
Frontispiece from Various Small Books Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha

The tone of cool detachment of Ruscha's volumes influenced many artists of the conceptualist era. As the authors explain, the Ruschas feature "mundane subjects photographed prosaically, with idiosyncratically deadpan titles."These “small books” were sought after, collected, and loved by Ruscha's fans and fellow artists. Over the past 30 years, close to 100 other small books that appropriated or paid homage to Ruscha’s have been created. Some are imitations, some come close to parody. The best build on the basic premises to introduce something new. For instance, Every coffee I drank in January 2010 by Hermann Zschiegner takes off from typologies of coffee-cup lid designs. It presents photos of the actual individual lids fitted to cups, day by day, many still bearing stains of the beverage. The result is a whimsical diary described as one of “a series of tributes” to New York City. Both the tops and bottoms of the lids have been photographed;on a few occasions the pages reflect that there was no cup consumed, on others more than one.

Every coffee I drank in January 2010 by Hermann Zschiegner, 2010
Every coffee I drank in January 2010, by Hermann Zschiegner, 2010

“Zschiegner's coffees of January reside one to a page. Rectos feature the topside of a single lid, versos the corresponding bottom . . . As metonyms and indexes of the coffee that has been consumed, the uniqueness of each lid gives the respective drink a specificity that might otherwise be lacking from a straightforward inventory. The day’s consumption becomes a ritual act that produces a drawing . . .”

The Ruscha-inspired books tend to be limited-edition, even self-published volumes, reflecting a strategy of book making that appears to be growing more popular among photographers and designers. That business plan, like the limited-edition strategy of prints or other artworks, is a form of seriality that reflects the serial arrangement of objects photographed in such books. The result is an even more disorienting contemplation of “bookness.”

All images are taken from the books reviewed and are reproduced by permission of their respective publishers.


View all Notable Design Books of 2013

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