Notable Design Books: Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: July Reviews

By Steve Kroeter July 11, 2013


Our midsummer crop of reviews for July has arrived, with ten new reviews of Notable Design Books of 2013, selected by members of our Book Board. You can also view the complete list of Notable Design Books of 2013, in our signature grid format.

Book Board members who have participated in selecting titles for our July post are Allison Arieff,  John HillStephanie Murg, Phil Patton, Witold Rybczynski, Alissa Walker, and Norman Weinstein. This month’s selections cover everything from the best new objects for the home to Pucci prints to what architects can learn from artist James Turrell. One book looks at why interviewing should be a cornerstone of every designer’s work, another examines the range of design originating in Switzerland, and still another explores “urban innovation districts.”

The ten books featured this month are listed below, followed by review 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.


Jennifer Hudson

The Design Book: 1000 New Designs for the Home and Where to Find Them

by Jennifer Hudson
Laurence King Publishing (May 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Stephanie Murg (Unbeige)

Like fine art, the world of design can be intimidating territory for newbies. More than once I’ve received an e-mail that essentially asks, “Where do I start?” A new book offers a just-the-objects snapshot of contemporary design that would otherwise require weeks of trawling the web, poring over design and shelter magazines from around the world, and more than one pilgrimage to Milan’s Salone del Mobile. Behold The Design Book, an image-filled survey that promises “1,000 new designs for the home and where to find them.”

Editor and researcher Jennifer Hudson has organized the sourcebook into nine chapters, including tables and chairs, sofas and beds, electronics, and miscellaneous, a catch-all where you’ll find everything from Eero Aarnio’s “Diva” watering can to a sleek coffin (in eco-friendly lacquer) by Timothy Jacob Jensen. Scattered among the objects, which are identified by name, designer, material, dimensions, and manufacturer or vendor (unfortunately the book is oddly devoid of dates), are Q&As with the likes of Jaime Hayon, Piet Hein Eek, Xavier Lust, and Nendo, who notes, “We see our job as being able to give people small ‘!’ moments”—the objects in this book offer many such little epiphanies for those looking to take the pulse of design for the home.

The Design Book: 1000 New Designs for the Home and Where to Find Them by Jennifer Hudson, 2013 (Laurence King Publishing)
Pendant lamp. Spinning Light designed by Benjamin Hubert. Spun aluminum. & Tradition, Denmark. From The Design Book: 1000 New Designs for the Home and Where to Find Them, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing
Cabinet. Homage to Mondrian, designed by Shiro Kuramata. Lacquered wood. Cappellini, Italy. From The Design Book: 1000 New Designs for the Home and Where to Find Them, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

Vanessa Friedman

Emilio Pucci

by Vanessa Friedman; edited by Armando Chitolina
TASCHEN (February 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci always resisted the title of “artist” and accepted solely the title of “dressmaker.” This lovingly compiled and monumentally scaled catalogue of his signature designs should settle the issue. Pucci was a major artist whose creativity consistently transcended the ready-to-wear sportswear lines that made his name internationally acclaimed. The authors compile a thorough listing of Pucci’s influences: the art and architecture of his beloved city of Florence, his lifelong romance with tropical colors patterned in exuberantly rhythmic prints inspired by his travels in Africa and Indonesia, and his love of cinema. And fitting for a 20th-century Renaissance man was Pucci’s adoration of the painters of Italy’s first renaissance, Fra Angelico and Botticelli, mingled with his highly selective borrowing of ecstatically kinetic color motifs from the psychedelic ‘60s and the pop art ‘80s.

Emilio Pucci by Vanessa Friedman; edited by Armando Chitolina, 2013 (Taschen)
Silk dress with “Ellisse” print and sandals with fabric laces. Spring/Summer 2003 Collection. Vogue Australia, April 2003. Photo: ©Torkil Gudnason. From Emilio Pucci, courtesy of TASCHEN

Yet missing from this otherwise flawless narrative carefully woven by Friedman and Boza is the obvious impact of Italian carnivals, ancient and modern, on Pucci’s designs. The swirling electrifying colors that dance seemingly beyond the seams of silk dresses and scarves, the riotously sensual geometric forms that herald feminine curvaceousness, the spirit of athletic grace his Technicolor leggings proclaimed—these were carnivalesque artifacts in motion.

Old and new Braniff hostess uniforms through times. The bright-colored uniforms are designed by Emilio Pucci. Photo: Braniff Collection, Hostess Uniforms Pucci, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections Department, McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas. From Emilio Pucci, courtesy of TASCHEN

The hundreds of color illustrations that grace this reasonably priced reprint of the original high-priced limited edition comprise the book’s essential core. A more joyous experience for lovers of the colors of carnival realized in fashion could not be imagined.


Denis Wood (Photo: Dante W. Harper)

Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas

by Denis Wood
Siglio Press (2nd revised edition, May 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

I love this book just for the fact that Wood says he strips away the extraneous “map crap” (scale, orientation, street grids) to create this simultaneously dreamy and subversive document of his Boylan Heights neighborhood. Wood is interested not in intersections but what's within interstitials. His mesmerizing graphics capture barking dogs, absentee landlords, disfigured trees, and the paper route of Lester Mims. The absence of the expected doesn’t make these cartographic explorations any less informative, however. The narratives accompanying Wood’s maps tell a much deeper story of this North Carolina neighborhood than any “normal” map ever could.

Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood, 2013 (Siglio Press)
Inside cover of Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas showing a selection of maps by Denis Wood. Courtesy of Siglio Press
Pools of Light by Denis Wood, from Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas. Courtesy of Siglio Press  

Ben Katchor (Photo: Jeff Goodman)

Hand-Drying in America

by Ben Katchor
Random House (February 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

A highlight of Metropolis magazine since 1998 has been Ben Katchor’s comic strips that grace the monthly’s back page. The funny and nostalgic stories describe our multifaceted relationships with the world of design, be it the implements we wield, the spaces we inhabit, or the cities we move through. The broad range of subjects parallels the concerns of Metropolis itself, making the relationship between the magazine and illustrator a fitting one.

This book collects 15 years worth of strips that capture Katchor’s amazing consistency in churning out pieces that draw us into a parallel world that resembles New York City but is made up of oddly named places and even odder characters. The strips also trace the magazine’s evolution over the same period, most overtly in “The Tragic History of the Oversized Magazines,” which takes up a two-page spread roughly in the center of the book (newer readers may not know it, but Metropolis used to be an impressive, tabloid-sized magazine), and in the way the comics change in size from beginning to end.

Without an introductory or any other essay to be found, the collection lets the strips stand on their own. And they do so extremely well, even though on repeated readings (in order or jumping around) most of the strips do reveal a structural and narrative logic. But to imbibe, in one place, stories about the design of a “new building ruined by the sound of the common wall light switch" and “boys wielding cheap bristle brushes and pails of 14-karat gold paint” roaming the streets to fulfill their “decorative impulse” on surfaces of neutral color, among many other memorable strips, is one of the greatest treats of 2013.

Hand-Drying in America, by Ben Katchor, 2013 (Random House)
From Hand-Drying in America by Ben Katchor. Courtesy of Random House

Alice Rawsthorn

Hello World: Where Design Meets Life

by Alice Rawsthorn; designed by Irma Boom
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin (March 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Alissa Walker (Los Angeles)

Not many design books strive to trace the origins of an industry that’s ubiquitous in our daily lives. But in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, Alice Rawsthorn makes one of the most persuasive cases for pinpointing the birth of design as she introduces readers to a man named Ying Zheng who ran a kingdom named Qin in 246 B.C. By standardizing the size and shape of his army’s bows and arrows, he was able to defend his empire and conquer new lands more efficiently than his fellow warrior-kings, becoming the emperor of what would eventually be the most populous country in the world: Chin.

As fans of Rawsthorn know well, she’s one of the only design writers out there who can so effectively move between different types of design: high to low, 2D to 3D, microbial to global, analog to interactive. The result is what might be the first truly multidisciplinary design book. Although it devotes plenty of words to the heavy hitters—Wedgwood, Thonet, Braun, and Apple serve as the “Big Four”—Hello World also takes some surprising and thought-provoking detours from the typical design canon, from the menacing graphics of pirate flags to the carbon fiber legs of amputee actor and artist Aimee Mullins.

Hello World: Where Design Meets Life by Alice Rawsthorn;designed by Irma Boom, 2013 (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

While Rawsthorn’s narration of design stories through the ages is entertaining and eloquent (one can never hear enough about the development of the London and New York subway maps), much of it will not be new to avid readers of her column in the International Herald Tribune. Rawsthorn’s voice is most evocative when grappling with the issues of a changing discipline, such as when it addresses the new role of technology and data in cities, or discusses the role of strategic thinking in design, or when the writer is championing entrepreneurial, socially focused activists like Project H's Emily Pilloton. And she’s at her very best when examining the complicated ethics of the humanitarian design projects One Laptop Per Child or the Play Pump.

Rawsthorn tackles a daunting task, to map out design’s cultural impact, in a compelling and often very entertaining way. Yet due to the rapid transformation of design, which she argues has evolved from standardization in ancient China to customization and—with the advent of self-publishing and 3D printing—personalization, it feels as if she’ll soon have enough material to write another book about what happens when the tools of design are placed into everyone’s hands. Now that she’s ably covered the history of the industry with this book, I very much hope that she writes that sequel.

Bespoke wooden legs worn by Aimee Mullins in an Alexander McQueen fashion show in 1999. From Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, courtesy of Hamish Hamilton/Penguin

Steve Portigal

Interviewing Users

by Steve Portigal
Rosenfeld Media (May 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Alissa Walker (Los Angeles)

In speaking with designers I know, the idea of interviewing users often falls to the wayside. Not that they don’t think they should do it, but they often feel that they’re not the best people to do it—that unearthing substantial findings is best left to someone else, maybe the project’s writer, or some separate research department, or an outside consulting firm that crunches and delivers the data on a silver platter. This book by the insightful writer and ethnographer Steve Portigal not only proves that interviewing should be a keystone of design work, it also makes a case for how and why designers should be carving out the time to do this work themselves.

Using a conversational tone peppered with plenty of notes from the field, Portigal passes on excellent advice for conducting the kinds of interviews that will elicit groundbreaking insights. There are practical checklists about nearly every aspect of the process, from how to show images, to being aware of body language, to notetaking and recording interviews (even this jaded reporter learned a few tips). Other writers and researchers contribute essays, and there’s also a vast online component, which includes Creative Commons-licensed images and forms that can be downloaded and adapted by the reader.

Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal, 2013 (Rosenfeld Media)
From Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal, courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

Portigal uses lots of real-life examples from his own research projects, including an incredibly powerful story about gaining the trust of a suspicious family that is not keen on being interviewed. But perhaps the best examples come from far outside the creative world, pulling quite creative asking and listening techniques from different industries—I particularly enjoyed reading about Portigal’s own experiences in improv theater.

As I was reading I realized that I could see many of Portigal’s ideas applied beyond just interviewing users—I immediately thought about interviewing clients to get them to open up about their product, or interviewing team members to learn how they work. And maybe that’s the most important part about Portigal’s book. You’ll learn how to ask better questions, yes, but really, you’ll learn to be a better listener, which will in turn make you a better designer.

From Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal, courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

Michael Govan                         Christine Kim

James Turrell: A Retrospective

by Michael Govan and Christine Kim
LACMA/Prestel (May 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Artist James Turrell is being given the superstar treatment in 2013 with three major exhibitions on the coasts and in the middle of the United States: “James Turrell: A Retrospective” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), “James Turrell” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and “James Turrell: The Light Inside” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To accompany the first, LACMA has created an impressive catalogue that charts the artist's five-decade-long career and beautifully documents his skyspaces” and other architectural constructions, most notably the ongoing Roden Crater project in Arizona.

Space is a loaded term for architects, since their designs define the extents, flow, and character of the spaces that people inhabit. For Turrell, space is as important, but in a different way. He admits to being involved with the architecture of space and the creation of form, but says, “When I prepare walls I make them so perfect that you actually don’t pay attention to them.” People in his installations and skyspaces are therefore drawn to the color of the light and the sky. For Turrell, light is his material and perception is his medium, so space is where the two converge.

James Turrell: A Retrospective by Michael Govan and Christine Kim, 2013 (LACMA/Prestel)
James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013. LED light into space. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds given by Kayne Griffin Corcoran and the Kayne Foundation. M2013.1. © James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr. From James Turrell: A Retrospective, courtesy of Prestel Publishing 

Architects and other designers can learn a lot from Turrell’s poetic and quiet manipulations of light, color, and space. The former should also appreciate the occasional architectural drawings found in the book. Like a magician’s secrets, they reveal what is hidden and what enables the spaces to be perceived in certain ways, while also illustrating how they are physical constructions that rely on particularly complex details.

James Turrell, Key Lime, 1994. Wedgework, fluorescent and LED light into space with fiber-optic light. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Renvy Graves Pittman, M2013.3. © James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr. From James Turrell: A Retrospective, courtesy of Prestel Publishing

Not surprisingly, Turrell’s installations and skyspaces are best experienced firsthand. They can be discussed and documented, as they are in this book, but that is hardly a substitute for the tangible effects that happen when sensing one of his works, ideally for long durations. That said, kudos should go to Florian Holzherr, whose large color photos grace most pages of the book and help to make it such a remarkable document of an artist worth all the attention.

James Turrell in front of Roden Crater Project at sunset, October 2001. Photo © Florian Holzherr. From James Turrell: A Retrospective, courtesy of Prestel Publishing

Khanh Trinh

Kamisaka Sekka: Dawn of Modern Japanese Design

by Khanh Trinh, editor
Prestel Publishing (April 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

This sensitively written and finely produced catalogue accompanying last year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia of the work of the artist Kamisaka Sekka offers a visionary re-thinking of the classical Japanese style known as “Rinpa.” For Westerners unfamiliar with Rinpa, Richard Wilson’s introductory essay offers a concise overview of this style, which showcases the natural world suffused with poetic lyricism and which dominated both fine and applied Japanese arts from the 16th to the end of the 19th century.

This historical preface opens a pathway into the heart of the book: the 300 plus color illustrations of Sekka’s art accompanied by Trinh’s biographical and artistic account of how Sekka matured into a leading figure in the evolution of modern Japanese design. Essentially, Trinh presents Sekka as a liminal artist par excellence. A world traveler aware of the Western art world’s emergent fascination with Japanese aesthetics at the birth of the 20th century, Sekka possessed both the taste and sensibility needed to treat traditionally stylized Japanese nature imagery with a robust experimental spirit and a healthy dose of humorous irreverence. Sekka’s woodblock book of satiric designs from 1903 risked outright vulgarity (one dog sniffing the excrement of another) when not mocking sterile imitation of traditional motifs (a Japanese character becomes stylized into a menacing cartoonish devil).

Kamisaka Sekka: Dawn of Modern Japanese Design by Khanh Trinh, 2013 (Prestel)
Kamisaka Sekka, Backstage scene, 1905-15. Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Hosomi Museum, Kyoto. From Kamisaka Sekka: Dawn of Modern Japanese Design, courtesy of Prestel Publishing

In a serious vein, Sekka’s reformulation of landscape designs for silk kimonos approached the threshold of pure abstract patterns. He emboldened subdued colors from the floating world, the dreamy palette of Buddhist Weltschmerz, and injected a blazing chromatic force, the effect being akin to shouting uncontrollably during the conventional silence of Zen meditation. Even more surprising was Sekka’s willingness to appropriate Rinpa-like odes to nature’s bountiful flora by way of closely borrowing ideas from William Morris’s textiles.

By blurring distinctions between imaginative Japanese and Western biomorphic designs, and by mocking stale formulaic and clichéd Japanese folk art traditions while vibrantly revitalizing others, Sekka influenced Japanese designers in our time, including neo-Pop painter Ai Yamaguchi and fashion designer Akira Isogawa. Illustrations of their art conclude this eye-opening volume.


Bruce Katz                              Jennifer Bradley

The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy

by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley
Brookings Institution Press (June 2013)

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Reviewer: Book Board member Witold Rybczynski (emeritus, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania)

The headline in New York’s Daily News of October 29, 1975, famously read, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” characterizing the federal government’s disdain for the Big Apple’s financial woes. There have been no similar headlines recently but there may as well have been, as a fractious and ineffective Congress seems unable—or unwilling—to craft effective national policies to deal with the urban fallout of the current Great Recession.

The economic slow-down, which began in 2008, hit cities and metropolitan areas particularly hard but, as Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their provocative book, this time federal inaction has had an unexpected effect. It produced what they call a metropolitan revolution, a sort of power inversion in which federal inactivity in urban affairs has spurred local initiatives. “Nearly four years after the recession’s official end,” Katz and Bradley write, “it is clear that the real, durable reshaping is being led by networks of city and metropolitan leaders—mayors and other local elected officials, for sure, but also heads of companies, universities, medical campuses, metropolitan business associations, labor unions, civic organizations, environmental groups, cultural institutions, and philanthropies.”

The reshaping they describe in numerous examples—New York, Denver, Cleveland, and Houston are discussed in detail—takes political, economic, even global form, but it also has a physical component. One example is urban and suburban “innovation districts,” enclaves of mixed-use, often adjacent to research universities and medical complexes, whose urban design enables key attributes such as high density, proximity, and walkability. Jane Jacobs would approve.


The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, 2013 (Brookings Institution Press)
Innovation district: a biotech building in Cambridge, Massachusetts

R. James Breiding

Swiss Made: The Untold Story of Switzerland’s Success

by R. James Breiding
Profile Books (May 2013)

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

The world-weary Orson Welles intones this line in The Third Man, Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film based on Graham Greene’s novel: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” But R. James Breiding’s Swiss Made shows that Switzerland produced much more than that, and besides, the cuckoo clock is a pretty big deal.

Clocks speak of a culture of time and punctuality and of timepiece making, from wristwatch to Swatch, that says much about modern life as well as about Switzerland. Swiss Made, which is subtitled “The Untold Story Behind Switzerland’s Success,” is one of the rare titles to put design in the context of business case studies and cultural economics.

Swiss Made: The Untold Story of Switzerland’s Success by R. James Breiding, 2013 (Profile Books)
A few Swatch best sellers from the 1980s: “Ruffled Feathers,” “Tonga, “St. Catherine Point,” and “Coral Gables.” From Swiss Made: The Untold Story of Switzerland’s Success, courtesy of Profile Books 

It is full of fascinating stories of familiar products seen from unfamiliar angles. Switzerland is a land not only of hardware but also of software, pharmaceuticals, and prosthetic inventions of all sorts. The stories show the unanticipated ways in which ideas develop. Innovation in elevator design, for instance, at Schindler, came from such unexpected areas as scheduling cars with the so called “hall call” algorithm.

The tale of how the Nespresso coffee system, at first feared by executives as a potential cannibalizing rival to Nescafé instant coffee, took years to grow up at the edges of Nestlé’s empire. Developed at Nestlé’s branch in Japan, and promoted through clubs and shops there, it ended up a very different product before becoming a global success. Breiding explains that “Nespresso took more than a decade to make a dent in the market and Nestlé’s Chairman refused to put a machine in the board room because he was skeptical of its success. Now it is the most profitable among Nestlé’s 4,000 products.”

The source of innovation, Breiding argues, is the Swiss economic model. It has produced high average income without a disproportionate concentration of wealth at the top. Nestlé and Novartis may be familiar Swiss firms, but the book is also full of surprising examples of Swiss companies built on design, such as Logitech, the pioneer of the computer mouse and accessory design, established in 1982. (And of all the Swiss innovations, the cuckoo clock is not one: Breiding says it was developed in Germany.)

The Matterhorn came to symbolize foreign fascination with Switzerland. This 1908 poster by Emil Cardinaux was the first of its kind to advertise tourism. Photo: Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek/NB, Bern. From Swiss Made: The Untold Story of Switzerland’s Success, courtesy of Profile Books. 

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


View all Notable Design Books of 2013

Related posts: 10 Notable Design Books of 2013: April Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: May Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: June Reviews


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