Notable Design Books: Reviews

12 Notable Design Books of 2013: September Reviews

September 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 ArieffSteven HellerJohn HillEllen Lupton, Phil Patton, Norman Weinstein, and Alissa Walker.

Brenda Vale
Robert Vale
Architecture on the Carpet

By Brenda and Robert Vale
Thames & Hudson (September 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

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.

Meccano set, from Architecture on the Carpet. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

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.

Tudor Minbrix, from Architecture on the Carpet. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Sylvia Lavin (© MAK Center, photo: Mimi Teller)
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 (July 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Alissa Walker (Los Angeles)

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.

From the exhibition Everything Loose Will Land at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, Los Angeles, summer 2013 (© MAK Center, photo: Joshua White)
Alicia Kennedy
Emily Banis Stoehrer
Jay Calderin
Fashion Design, Referenced

By Alicia Kennedy and Emily Banis Stoehrer, with Jay Calderin
Rockport Publishers (February 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

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.

Interior spread from Fashion Design, Referenced. Courtesy of Rockport Publishers
Interior spread from Fashion Design, Referenced. Courtesy of Rockport Publishers


Ilka and Andreas Ruby
MVRDV Buildings

By Ilka and Andreas Ruby, editors, and MVRDV
nai101 Publishers (September 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

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.

Matsudai Center, Japan, designed by MVRDV, completed 2004. Photo: Rob Hart. From MVRDV Buildings (nai101 Publishers)

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.

Didden Village, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, designed by MVRDV, completed 2006. Photo: Rob Hart. From MVRDV Buildings (nai101 Publishers)


Greg Goldin
Sam Lubell
Never Built Los Angeles

By Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell; Foreword by Thom Mayne
Metropolis Books (July 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Alissa Walker (Los Angeles)

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.

Lloyd Wright Civic Center Plan, 1925, from Never Built Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy Eric Lloyd Wright
Proposed Santa Monica Causeway, 1965, from Never Built Los Angeles. Photo: courtesy of the City of Santa Monica
Simon Loxley
Printer’s Devil

By Simon Loxley
Designed by Jerry Kelly
David R. Godine (May 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Steven Heller

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.”

Christmas and New Year books designed by Warde at William Edwin Rudge. The top two books are editions of Washington Irving’s Christmas Eve, and the bottom books are editions of Charles Lamb’s New Year's Eve. From Printer’s Devil, photo: © Bob Lorenzson

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.

Front cover of The Tapestry by Robert Bridges. This copy carries Warde’s personal device, a subsequent addition glued to the center of the cover. From Printer’s Devil, photo: © Bob Lorenzson
Deyan Sudjic (photo: Luke Hayes)
Shiro Kuramata

By Deyan Sudjic
Phaidon Press (June 2013)
Buy the book

Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

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.

Miss Blanche Chair, designed by Shiro Kuramata, 1988. From Shiro Kuramata (Phaidon Press)

Glass Chair, designed by Shiro Kuramata, 1976. From Shiro Kuramata (Phaidon Press)
Michael Haverkamp
Synesthetic Design

By Michael Haverkamp
Birkhaüser (January 2013)
Buy the book

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

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.

Page from Synesthetic Design (Birkhaüser)
Tom Dixon
Tom Dixon: Dixonary

Text by Tom Dixon; edited by by Camilla Belton and Robert Violette
Violette Editions (June 2013)
Buy the book

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

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.

Left: Dixon solder kit, manufactured by William Dixon Inc., reproduced as line drawings by Saara Hopea Untracht, in Metal Techniques for Craftsmen:
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.

Left: Traffic signs. Right: Tower Salt & Pepper Grinders, 2013. Turned beech with ceramic mechanism. Manufacturer: Eclectic by Tom Dixon Industrial production. From Tom Dixon: Dixonary (Violette Editions)
Dhiru A. Thadani
Visions of Seaside

By Dhiru A. Thadani; introduction by Paul Goldberger; foreword by Vincent Scully
Rizzoli International Publications (September 2013)
Buy the book

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

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. 

Early aerial view of the community of Seaside, Walton County, Florida, 1982. Photo: David Shea. From Visions of Seaside (Rizzoli)

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.

Beachfront piazzetta proposed for Seaside. Watercolor drawing by David Csont of Urban Design Associates, 2012, digitally modifed for Visions of Seaside by Dhiru Thadani to adjust the position of Léon Krier’s proposed Seaside Tower in relation to the piazzetta. From Visions of Seaside (Rizzoli)

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.”

comments powered by Disqus