Notable Design Books: Reviews

Pasta by Design

By Maria Popova March 8, 2012

Guest blogger Maria Popova—creator of Brain Pickings—discusses George L. Legendre’s recent book, which looks at pasta shapes as design statement. — SK

Maria Popova

Guest blogger: Maria Popova (Brain Pickings, New York)

Profile     Notable Books of 2011

Pasta by Design, 2011 (Thames & Hudson)

Since at least the 1st century BCE, sheets of dough made of wheat have endured as one of humanity’s most beloved food staples. Today, pasta has proliferated into a culture all its own, transcending its status as mere nourishment to enthrall with its many facets of cross-disciplinary fascination—first its geometry, and now its design.

In Pasta by Design from British art book publisher Thames & Hudson, architect George L. Legendre explores the intricate beauty and geometric whimsy of 92 different types of pasta.

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. Paola Antonelli, The Museum of Modern Art’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, and a champion of design as sensemaking mechanism for the world, writes in the introduction:


“Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat—one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types—and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture—as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”



Taking a cue from the science of phylogeny—the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature—Legendre distills the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification in an obsessive family tree based on their morphological features. Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, coupled with a minimalist yet expressive photograph and a short paragraph of cooking suggestions for the respective pasta variety.

“We were interested in, if you like, the amalgamation of mathematics and cooking tips—the profane, the sacred,” Legendre tells the New York Times.

With its cross-disciplinary lens on the classic pantry mainstay, Pasta by Design not only examines the hidden genius of what makes great design but also embodies the explicit intention of what makes a great design book—a thoughtful cross section of art, science, and pragmatism delivered.

All images are from Pasta by Design, courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

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