12 Notable Design Books of 2013: September ReviewsSeptember 9, 2013
Our September dozen features highly regarded British product designer Tom Dixon’s new book, a compendium of Dutch architecture firm MVRDV's buildings, and a comprehensive guide to the art and industry of fashion design. Among other titles are a two-volume edition of the work of 20th-century Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, a collection of toys for budding architects, and an exploration of the colorful life of early 20th-century type designer Frederic Warde.
Notable Design Books of 2013 have been 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 September post are Allison Arieff, Ames Gerould, Steven Heller, John Hill, Ellen Lupton, Phil Patton, Norman Weinstein, and Alissa Walker.
- Architecture on the Carpet by Brenda and Robert Vale (Thames & Hudson)
- Arts for Living edited by Common Room and Kim Förster (Common Books)
- Cidade de Deus! City of God! By Marc Angélil and Rainer Hehl, eds., in collaboration with Something Fantastic (Ruby Press)
- Everything Loose Will Land Edited by Sylvia Lavin and Kimberli Meyer (MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House and Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg)
- Fashion Design, Referenced By Alicia Kennedy and Emily Banis Stoehrer, with Jay Calderin (Rockport Publishers)
- MVRDV Buildings Edited by Andreas and Ilka Ruby and MVRDV (nai101 Publishers)
- Never Built Los Angeles by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell; foreword by Thom Mayne (Metropolis Books)
- Printer’s Devil By Simon Loxley (David R. Godine)
- Shiro Kuramata By Deyan Sudjic (Phaidon Press)
- Synesthetic Design By Michael Haverkamp (Birkhaüser)
- Tom Dixon: Dixonary Text by Tom Dixon (Violette Editions)
- Visions of Seaside By Dhiru A. Thadani (Rizzoli)
|Architecture on the Carpet by Brenda and Robert Vale, 2013 (Thames & Hudson)|
“Does architecture drive the toy or does the toy reflect the architecture of the time?” This is the question explored by the Vales’ fascinating exploration into the world of construction toys.
Just like the real world, the urban/suburban divide has existed in the playroom: some building kits, like the odd boil-able, Bakelite Bayko, were distinctly suburban while others, like Bilt-E-Z, inspired component-part-exposing skyscrapers. And there’s the discovery of a toy called “Betta Bilda,” which is now an up-for-grabs name for an architecturally-inclined rapper.
The book explores everything from gender bias to class distinctions of construction toys and reading it made me wish even more that Lego would move away from promoting its meticulously directed kits and more toward less-programmed piles of bricks.
|Arts for Living: Public Architecture and Architectural Education, edited by Common Room and Kim Förster, 2013 (Common Books)|
Arts For Living is a case study of the Abrons Arts Center, which is situated on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Abrons Arts Center was founded through Lyndon B Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, the idea being that a community arts center could resuscitate through art a traditionally poor working-class immigrant neighborhood. Obviously, some convincing needed to take place to demonstrate that a very open and public community arts program could in effect lift poverty from a targeted area. The thread reaches further back, however, from 1975 to 1914 when a philanthropist couple bought the lot on the corner of Pitt and Grand streets and built a community playhouse. That same lot transformed the Playhouse to the Abrons Arts Center, a very fitting metamorphosis.
The Abrons Arts Center, part of the Henry Street Settlement (a nonprofit social services agency), was designed by the firm Prentice & Chan. This book is a collection of interviews with the various figures who worked on the center from its beginnings through the course of achieving its mission. The original art instructors as well as Lo Yi Chan from Prentice & Chan are interviewed. The connections and relationships to similar institutions such as Cooper Union are discussed. The involvement of artist Gordon Matta-Clark is spoken of. The impact that the Vietnam War had back at home and its direct effect on the Abrons Arts Center are detailed.
The book design in itself is even interesting. It should come as a surprise that the book was printed in Amsterdam in 2013. It looks, sneakily, as if it were designed and printed in the 1970s. The type and graphics are set in tri-color; the layout and the condensed formatting, as well as the paper stock and binding of this book, are all reminiscent of the printing and imaging technologies available in the ’70s.
The design and production of Arts For Living is cleverly in sync with the construction methods employed in the Abrons in the 1970s. The renderings as well replicate the technologies of the time. The book is illustrated throughout with original documents such as flyers, notices, maps, and posters from the Abrons Arts Center, and Common Room Studio has cleverly expanded the discussion with its own material to better illustrate the case study about this largely unacknowledged community center.
|Cidade de Deus! City of God!, edited by Marc Angélil and Rainer Hehl, 2013 (Ruby Press)|
The infamous City of God that many only know from the film of the same name has a history and explanation well beyond the film. Cidade de Deus! City Of God! is that explanation from an urban studies viewpoint. The Cidade de Deus was originally planned in the 1960s as a commuter suburb of Rio de Janeiro intended for 10,000 residents. The suburb ballooned almost immediately to a population of 40,000 within the same boundaries that demarcated the original land. In the 1980s Brazil fell onto hard times and the suburb went through a massive transformation linked tocrime and the drug trade.
What was usually never covered by many popular studies of Brazil’s favela phenomenon were its successes. Predictably, attention was devoted only to its hardships, downfalls, and drug violence. Cidade de Deus! explains the many points and the reasons for its various transformations. The policies implemented are written about. The way residents chose to adapt structures and land use are photographed. The politics that have been at play are illustrated. The resources at hand are mapped. The opportunities available to the population of the City of God are diagrammed. All of these variables are richly illustrated throughout the book end to end. The book calls to mind the title of a 2010 book, Atlas of the Conflict by Malkit Shoshan in its use of infographics and maps.
Standardized mass housing was always an experiment but was it always really a failure as it is commonly regarded?
|Everything Loose Will Land edited by Sylvia Lavin and Kimberli Meyer, 2013 (MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House and Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg)|
“Tip the world on its side,” Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly said, “and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Maybe he was talking about L.A.’s buildings, which at first glimpse seem haphazardly scattered across Southern California’s famously chaotic urban landscape. But I take it to mean L.A.’s residents: the dreamers, the punks, the weirdos, the outsiders, the nuts, the freaks, the geeks, who are the subjects of this appropriately named exhibition and its appropriately sprawling, rollicking catalogue.
The show, which took up residence in the Schindler House this past summer as part of the MAK Center’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., examines the intersection of two nascent, experimental, and eventually influential scenes, as L.A.’s contemporary art and contemporary architecture worlds grew up together during the 1970s. As the two movements matured, they became intertwined in a sort of infinite cultural feedback loop, with architects like Frank Gehry, Craig Hodgetts, and Thom Mayne working alongside artists like Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, and Larry Bell, exploring new technologies together (this period saw the birth of the personal computer, after all) and employing an increasingly DIY aesthetic. The visionary curator and writer Sylvia Lavin spent years uncovering a vast trove of works to support this thesis, and after a few contextual essays, the book presents these works intelligently organized but largely unadulterated, thanks to the smart design of Roman Jaster and Colleen Corcoran.
|Untitled (Equilateral Triangle) by Bruce Naumann, 1980, rebuilt 2013 for exhibition Everything Loose Will Land, 2013 (© MAK Center, photo: Joshua White)|
While the entire book is an indulgent visual treat (worth getting for Archigram’s wacky collages alone), the most compelling section is “Works on Paper,” where for 172 pages the designers simply reproduced a jaw-dropping collection of untreated ephemera from the period: personal letters from Denise Scott Brown, notes and drawings by Judy Chicago as she dreamed up The Dinner Party, a children’s book about housing by Victor Gruen’s studio—all of which give the reader the same sense of discovery one imagines Lavin might have had combing some dusty basement archives. Throughout the catalogue, but here especially, the personalities of the projects emerge and you begin piece together the importance of this moment as well as the uniqueness of its artists and designers. They all landed here, and L.A. is so very lucky that they did.
|Fashion Design, Referenced by Alicia Kennedy and Emily Banis Stoehrer, with Jay Calderin, 2013 (Rockport Publishers)|
No general book on fashion design in recent years has so successfully reorganized how to think about the field as Fashion Design, Referenced. It has accomplished this goal through reformulating lively features of website design and infusing electrifying graphics with erudite cross-disciplinary commentary. As Alicia Kennedy writes in her astute foreword, “Our book approaches fashion design from the perspective of connectivity. It unfolds how fashion is imagined, produced, and disseminated within larger social, economic, and cultural systems.”
Through over 1,000 well-reproduced photographs and drawings, and through scores of judiciously and passionately written brief articles—Wiki or blog length—readers are encouraged through the book’s mandala-like organization to imaginatively follow rich trails of cross-disciplinary association in a non-linear fashion. That said, it is just as pleasurable to read the book conventionally from opening page to last, enjoying a sprawling multi-dimensional text on fashion design, moving from an overview of the profession, to a primer on how bare-bone ideas materialize into finished products, to avenues through which fashion reaches its audience, and finally as a critical examination of innovative practices of the major movers and shakers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Particularly striking are the many parallels established between architectural and fashion design, as well as the ties between pop music and fashion trends. This is that rare fashion overview that even designers outside of fashion can find constantly inspirational.
|MVRDV Buildings, edited by Ilka and Andreas Ruby, 2013 (nai010 Publishers)|
In response to the query whether this book presenting 37 buildings from the first 20 years of MVRDV is a monograph, Nathalie de Vries—one-third of the Dutch architecture firm, with Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs—says in the preface: “In a way, yes.” She then adds, relative to the numerous books on architecture and urbanism they have produced, “The agenda is simpler this time: anyone should be able to read this book.” With editors Ilka and Andreas Ruby, and writer Natalie Janson, MVRDV has created an un-monograph monograph, one that emphasizes the people who use its buildings.
Even before reading Nathalie’s above statement on page 7, the reader is tipped off as to the unique format of the book through a photograph on page 1: a woman in the open-air ground-floor space of the Matsudai Cultural Village Center in Japan is vacuuming the mats that are used for performances. The building is the frame for the photo and the woman’s experience, but our attention is drawn to how she is interacting with it, rather than form, materials, and other architectural concerns.
The same orientation applies to the project descriptions, penned by Janson and a few other writers in a journalistic manner. Quotes from the architects can be found, but also those of the various buildings’ clients and users. A good example—one with both praise and criticism—can be found in a statement from the head of facilities at Villa VPRO, a broadcasting studio and MVRDV’s first project: “It is sometimes a real puzzle to find the ideal space for some teams. It’s either too noisy or too light. But you know, most of the people have worked here for a long time and they have no clue what a punishment it is to work in a normal office building.”
Beyond the focus on people and the insight gained through their words (not to mention the many photos grabbed from public-domain websites that accompany the professional shots), the book does an excellent job in conveying just how diverse MVRDV’s output is. The architects may be known for daring cantilevers (WoZoCo and Balancing Barn) and colorful forms (Hagen Island and Didden Village), but the reader gains an understanding that their projects do not evolve from preconceived notions. Function and experience drive MVRDV’s buildings, so it’s appropriate that the firm presents its buildings accordingly.
|Never Built Los Angeles by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, 2013 (Metropolis Books)|
Los Angeles’s civic center might have been a Lloyd Wright masterpiece of terraced gardens. There should be a lush housing development by Richard Neutra where Dodger Stadium stands today. LAX could have been encased under a massive glass dome. These otherworldly proposals for L.A. were unearthed by architecture writers Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell during three years of intensive research, who turned their findings into an exhibition, app, and this book of over 100 projects that might have changed L.A. for the better. (Of course not all the dashed ideas were good: A freeway was supposed to connect Santa Monica to Malibu—directly through the Santa Monica Bay.) Armed with hundreds of models, sketches and drawings, Goldin and Lubell worked with the designers at Volume, Inc. to capture the "on the boards" nature of the projects without succumbing to the bleary-eyed nostalgia of most retro-fabulous compendiums. While the book makes the case that L.A. is "always the exception," it also admits that there's something exceptional in the way we built up, tear down, dream big and fail disastrously. We probably always will. In that way, Never Built Los Angeles is about a city that never was, but it's also about the kind of city L.A. still wants to be.
|Printer’s Devil: The Life and Work of Frederic Warde by Simon Loxley, 2013 (David R. Godine)|
Many designers know Beatrice Warde’s name because of her oft-quoted “type as crystal goblet” metaphor, while her husband (for a short time), Frederic Warde, a classical American type designer and illustrator, is known only to an ever-decreasing number of orthodox type mavens. But now, designer Simon Loxley, author of Type: The Secret History of Letters, has taken a stab at filling the biographical void with Printer’s Devil: The Life and Work of Frederic Warde, a deeply researched and surprisingly engaging account of Warde’s life within a circle of storied type and book men. Warde led a fascinating if not disturbing life. He was “highly anti-semitic” (he spoke of the Kill-A-Kike-A-Day-Club), writes Loxley. And his marriage was overshadowed by his homosexuality (“Tomorrow morning,” Beatrice Warde wrote to her mother, “...we go straight to Paris: but if F. will continue to ‘go straight’ after he reaches that gay city, I don't know”). Of course, there is also a lot about his collaboration with Stanley Morison and the design of his famed typeface, Arrighi, as well as for being the Zelig of the fine-printing community.
Warde was a troubled perfectionist during a period when fine printing and typography were keys to an exclusive club. He was, notes Loxley in the introduction, “a shadowy figure,” and “a gifted, self-destructive burn-out … [an] ambitious failure” whose “aspirations immolated on the pyre of personality defects.” But there is more than mere melodrama here. “I gradually developed not only respect for Warde’s devotion and commitment to his craft,” Loxley continues, “but also love for much of his substantial body of work.” Warde had his loyal critics. “Nothing he did, to my knowledge,” said George Macy who hired him to design for the The Limited Editions Club, “fails to satisfy the eye: even if it is true that his books often fail to satisfy the soul.”
Jerry Kelly’s elegant book design in the style of the times, set in Minion and Arrighi JK types, might turn off some younger potential readers, but it is a package worth savoring.
How can you ignore a book about a designer who is exposed and celebrated for many flaws and curious triumphs. Or one who “either sought out or bumped up against most of the key players of the period: Bruce Rogers, Daniel Berkeley Updike, Hans Mardersteig, Rudolph Ruzicka, Frederic Goudy . . .” all heroes of the age. If that’s not enough, Loxley proves Beatrice did much of the writing Warde put his name to. “I could write easily, perhaps better than he. So I helped as I could,” Beatrice is quoted as saying. What a juicy read.
|Shiro Kuramata by Deyan Sudjic, 2013 (Phaidon Press)|
To give equal billing to the book designer as well as author of this nonpareil two-volume monograph on the extraordinary Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata is understandable when you hold this set in your hands. The books are encased in an acrylic box, a reminder of the wondrous furniture and interior decorations Kuramata could derive from unsexy acrylic. But as with everything pertaining to Kuramata, there is more than meets the eye initially. Empty the acrylic box of its sturdily bound volumes, one largely history and analysis of the artist by the attuned design critic Deyan Sudjic, author of The Language of Things, the other a catalogue raisonné with around 600 of Kuramata’s designs). Hold the acrylic box so that its surfaces are exposed to a strong light source. The box becomes prismatic, creating a multi-hued light show you could also create by turning a beveled glass pane, bringing to mind all of the material differences as well as commonalities of glass and acrylic.
During Kuramata’s tragically short life and career (b. 1934 – d. 1991), he playfully yet fiercely worked designing objects, furniture, and interiors (the interiors, sadly, are all demolished now) that existed memorably in the interstices between ambiguously paradoxical material states and states of mind. Confounding the transparencies of acrylic and glass by creating bravura masterpieces like his “Glass Chair” and his acrylic “Miss Blanche” chair, he also intermingled sensations of weight and weightlessness in his chair fabricated from wire mesh and in his cabinets that seem to bend like reeds in a breeze. He also had an uncanny love, perhaps inspired by Joseph Cornell’s art boxes, of creating profuse and asymmetrically configured drawers for bureau-like furniture that resembled what storage units Alice might have discovered in Wonderland.
Mingling ancient and modern Japanese folk fantasy traditions with touches of European minimalism, Kuramata created a totally beguiling range of objects and furniture with a light and mysterious touch. Deyan Sudjic and book designer Jonathan Hares deserve our gratitude for a monograph that re-animates the sense of wonder and mystery that suffused all Kuramata ever touched in his studio.
|Synesthetic Design: Handbook for a Multi-Sensory Approach by Michael Haverkamp, 2013 (Birkhäuser)|
Michael Haverkamp, an expert in sound design, is working to harmonize the cross-sensory driving environment at the Engineering Centre of Ford Motor Company in Cologne, Germany. His book Synesthetic Design is the most fascinating piece of design writing I've encountered in many years. Scientific yet accessible, Haverkamp’s book assesses mountains of research related to human perception to reveal correlations between the senses of sound, sight, smell, and touch. First, Haverkamp provides a useful, research-based update on the Gestalt psychology principles that most designers studied in school (grouping, common fate, figure/ground). Then, he applies these ideas from the visual realm to how we perceive sound and how we connect audio and visual input with input from the other senses.
The book’s layout, typography, and graphics, designed by Andreas Hidber, make this text a joy to read and navigate. Beautifully re-interpreted diagrams bring visual clarity to abstract concepts. Diagrams and illustrations are inserted into the text precisely where they are referenced, while elegant call-outs that summarize key points enable efficient scanning. Also included are a CD and a grid of QR codes connecting readers to a collection of sounds. This book is a must-read for any product designer, architect, interaction designer, or graphic designer seeking to understand design and the human experience.
|Tom Dixon: Dixonary, text by Tom Dixon, 2013 (Violette Editions)|
How do designers represent themselves in the medium of the book? Tom Dixon has released a fascinating self-portrait constructed in the medium of print. Crafted as a marvelous physical object that unfolds over time, Dixonary takes its inspiration from the designer’s own slide lectures, which pair an object or image from the world of pop culture and technology with a piece created by Dixon. The book introduces each work with a spare page of text and an image suggesting a cultural reference (pin-up girls, machine parts, genre paintings). The reader turns the page of text to reveal a Dixon object; these range from one-of-a-kind chairs bent from steel bars to sleek totemic stools and lamps. The text pages have been printed on a soft, warm stock that contrasts with the hard surface of the photographic plates, and they have been cut short at the fore edge to modulate the experience of flipping through the book.
A basic manual for craftsmen on the methods of forming and decorating metals, 1968, by Oppi Untracht. Right: Poodle Chair 1987 Rubber inner tube, upholstery, brass. Manufacturer: Tom Dixon Prototype. From Tom Dixon: Dixonary (Violette Editions)
Dixon is a hands-on maker who began creating furniture and objects in Britain in the late 1970s, where his raw, welded pieces attracted an immediate association with punk. Dixon claims to have never really been a punk, but he did draw energy from the movement’s rough-and-ready, do-it-yourself rebelliousness. He went on to become an influential designer with a diverse output, from art furniture to manufactured pieces. Dixonary is alive with the designer’s own voice as well as the culture that inspires him.
|Visions of Seaside: Foundation/Evolution/Imagination, Built & Unbuilt Architecture, by Dhiru A. Thadani, 2013 (Rizzoli)|
Like the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart where leading modernist architects built houses in 1927, or new towns of the 1930s like Radburn, New Jersey, the new town of Seaside, Florida, became famous as a subject of architectural discussion almost before it became a physical reality.
A pioneer design of the so-called New Urbanism, Seaside was built beginning in 1981 by Robert Davis, a visionary developer, who inherited the land in the Florida panhandle where the town rose. Seaside was intended to define the essence of comfortable towns in New England, Savannah and Charleston, and other areas in a model town. Its plan, carefully combining public spaces and private areas, was laid out for Davis by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andrés Duany—with much advice. Individual buildings were designed by Deborah Berke, Steven Holl, Léon Krier, Aldo Rossi, and Robert A. M. Stern, who also authored essays included in the book.
The book provides an extensive history of the town as well as discussions about its ideals. Each house— and other buildings, including many that were merely planned, not built—is profiled in this Bible-size collection and the volume is packed with suggestions for alternative town layouts. The book also outlines a blueprint for developing the town over the next 25 to 50 years.
In the 1980s, Seaside served to crystallize, in alliance and in debate, a widening community with a shared set of ideas, but very different sensibilities, from Léon Krier to Christopher Alexander. The New Urbanism was about ideas but it was style that ultimately defined its limits. But as it took shape, Seaside emerged in popular media—and it was widely covered—as a cartoon of itself. It was depicted as a sort of pastel, po mo village. The houses grew larger and more elaborate than planned. This was in contrast to the town’s early days, which involved a vision of more rugged vernacular architecture, more beach shack than cottage.
As roses and tents selling crafts appeared at Seaside, some of the architects who were early supporters joked about a lost alternative: Darkside, which would have been built of plywood and corrugated tin. The town’s specific rules for building masses and details could seem overweening and bossy. But the results were surprising, as exemplified by a requirement that each house have a white fence in its front yard—a seemingly petty regulation that resulted in a wonderfully eclectic variety of fence designs.
Seaside was criticized as not being “a real test” economically because it was effectively a resort. Indeed, the pattern of Seaside’s growth was not unlike that of early suburbs, like Llewelyn Park, New Jersey, where simple refuges from the city grew into prestige enclosed communities. It was also conflated in the public mind with Celebration, the showcase town built on New Urbanist themes by Disney in Florida. That may be due to its appearance as setting for the 1998 film The Truman Show, where it seemed a colder, less human place than it actually is. Like many things from the 1980s, Seaside suffers in memory.
The historicist and “cutesy” aspect of Seaside architecture may have obscured the ideas of street and town, with emphasis on walking and biking, that it shares with younger urbanists. Younger new modernists differ from the new urbanists before them. They look not to upgrading the suburbs but to upgrading the inner city, and focus less on the house than the apartment building. But Seaside has a lot of lessons to teach.
The need for more discussion of Seaside is established eloquently in the opening pages, with foreword and introduction by Yale’s venerable architectural historian Vincent Scully and critic Paul Goldberger, respectively. Both make the key point: ideas transcend aesthetics at Seaside. As Paul Goldberger puts it, “Form, Seaside tells us over and over again, is not style. And neither is urbanism style.”
View all Notable Design Books of 2013.