R. Craig Miller
Books Every Product Designer Should Read
In our global information age, we are besieged with a host of new media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, not to mention the ubiquitous e-mail. Books are thus, at least for me, very much an antidote. They are beautiful. They are sensuous. They are filled with new discoveries. Perhaps most important, they are a transcendental respite, wherein one may think new thoughts and quietly reflect on one’s position in relation to the present as well as the past.
A thoughtful curator—and designer, for that matter—must intrinsically know the history of design: the artists, manufacturers, institutions, and museums that have created and shaped the field in which we work. Books are among the most important entrees into that larger world.
This book list is by no means meant as a comprehensive bibliography. Rather, it is a personal annotation that reflects my aesthetic viewpoint and development as a museum curator, one that has, quite naturally, something of an American perspective.
I have divided the works into the following groups:
Treatises—These publications presented a new intellectual perspective that dramatically changed the larger design field, for architects are often among the most important protagonists in advancing radical movements.
They include Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture; Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas; and Barbara Radice’s Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design.
Historical Books—These publications helped identify and define important periods and developments in the history of modern design, as I grew and evolved as a museum curator and design historian.
They include Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (later republished as Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius); Erik Zahle’s A Treasury of Scandinavian Design; Robert J. Clark's Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision, 1925–1950; and Kathryn Hiesinger’s Design Since 1945.
I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning here two publications—USDesign, 1975–2000 and European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century—which could not have been completed without the collaboration of a group of distinguished colleagues. These two shows and catalogues were significant projects, for they were among the first attempts to assess the evolution of American and European design over a quarter century. In the process, the Denver Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art became important critical centers, as well as amassing extraordinary collections of contemporary American and European design, respectively.
Museum Books—These publications chronicle and exemplify the different conceptual approaches taken by important museums toward design, which can have a profound effect on the field. They also demonstrate how “the field of gravity” can shift with each generation of curators.
The books include Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s The International Style; Edgar Kaufmann Jr.’s What Is Modern Design?; Emilio Ambasz’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape; Yvonne Brunhammer’s Les Années “25”; Hans Wichmann’s Industrial Design Unikate Serienerzeugnisse: Ein neuer Museumstyp des 20. Jahrhunderts; and Martin Eidelberg’s Design 1935–1965: What Modern Was; as well as my own Modern Design in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890–1990, which is, in some respects, a sequel to Kaufmann’s seminal publication written almost a half century earlier, but one that sought to offer a more inclusive definition of what constituted modern design. This last-mentioned book also documented the Metropolitan’s highly important—but largely forgotten—role in shaping modern design in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.
Theoretical Books—There is no “one truth,” and these publications offer new theoretical, social, or cultural perspectives for examining the design arts, expanding our intellectual framework for critical judgments.
They include Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration; Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age; and Penny Sparke’s An Introduction to Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century.