Book List of the Week

The Craft of It All: Jonathan Olivares’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter December 18, 2012

Jonathan Olivares

Product/industrial designer Jonathan Olivares: Jonathan Olivares Design Research (New York)

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Jonathan Olivares generated quite a bit of notice last year with the publication of A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (Phaidon Press), one of the more unusual design books of 2011. With this compilation of the results of an exhaustive research project begun in 2006 for Knoll, the author, according to Paul Makovsky, who named Taxonomy a Designers & Books Notable Book of 2011, “took a boring topic—office chairs—and after four years of research produced a monograph that will have you wanting to redesign the chair you’re sitting in. With an almost scientific rigor, he includes over 400 illustrations of details of chairs. A model for anyone looking for an approach to the history and taxonomy of a product.”

Approaching an industrial object through the lens of morphology, normally associated with the evolution of the structure of plants and other organic forms, is a technique Olivares also adopted for his Designers & Books book list. An award-winning furniture designer in his own right—with a recent aluminum stacking chair for Knoll and a Compasso d’Oro award to his name, among other achievements—he comments in detail on the form as well as the content of five design titles.

On his list is A Computer Perspective, produced for an exhibition on the history of the computer that the Eames Office designed for IBM in the 1970s. “I could speak for days about the significance and beauty of this book,” says Olivares. “Its format is made up of sequences of images that occupy the central portion of each spread, with captions above and below. This creates a dynamic reading experience, and prefigures the basic format of the scrolling blog, or twitter feed, where a stream of text and images are in constant referral to each other. . . . While the content is interesting to me, the real fascination for me lies in the format, which offers a finely conceived lens for viewing history, and could be applied to any number of subjects.”

Jonathan Olivares, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, 2011 (Phaidon Press)

Olivares calls Enzo Mari—Sixty Paperweights: The Intellectual Work, a catalogue of a 2010 exhibition in Milan of furniture designer Enzo Mari’s paperweight collection, “a simple book on a simple theme, and like the exhibition offers a world of objects whose forms bear a clear, but always surprising relationship to their materials.” He cites Hans Richter, New Living, a book he discovered as a student and which has remained a favorite, noting, “The book explores the film Die neue Wohnung, which Richter did on commission from the Swiss Werkbund, and which functioned to promote modern furniture. The book features stills from the film that compare people living with antiquated furniture to people living with modern furniture. Seeing users in action, their movements guided by architecture and furniture, led me to see design as a kind of choreography.”

His admiration for a focused devotion to a subject continues with his selection of the classic Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975. Olivares marvels: “Though the ideas developed by Judd throughout this compilation of his gallery reviews, book reviews, articles, letters and statements are entirely interesting, what really intrigues me about this book is the fact that Judd actually went through with all of this writing, firmly developing his position on so many of the works of his contemporaries.”

The final title on Olivares's book list is Saarinen’s Quest: A Memoir, a book of photographs taken by designer and in-house photographer Richard Knight during his time in Eero Saarinen’s office in the 1950s until Saarinen’s death in 1961. “The photographs show Saarinen and his associates in deeply focused work, taping models, scrutinizing their designs, and discussing ideas. . . . An incredible sense of play, but serious play, comes across from seeing these grown men in suits crouching around scale buildings and mounting their drawings to the walls. The craft of it all is enviable.”

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