In my Notable Books of 2011 list, I mentioned A Book Apart, a new publishing company focused on creating short, useful books on designing websites. The latest volume is by Mike Monteiro, the San Francisco-based designer-slash-Twitter personality, which actually goes far beyond the web-design realm, and serves as an excellent primer for running a design business, or, I'd argue, any type of creative business. Easily devoured in an afternoon, the book is made even more enjoyable by Monteiro's refreshingly honest tough-love approach (not surprising from a man who gives lectures with his lawyer and is known for creating a painting that reads “Fuck You, Pay Me”). So many books like this are written by accounting types who want to “help” creatives, so Monteiro's work is long overdue: he's translated business basics back into the language of designers. And he does it with such a skillful sense of humor that it proves his other point: Running a business, like reading this book, can and should be fun.
It’s no secret that Diane Keaton is an architecture junkie: The Academy Award-winning actress has become a fixture at Los Angeles preservation events and has restored several notable homes across the city. Her previous book, California Romantica, was a luscious love letter to the Spanish Colonial and Mission residences that dot the Southern California landscape, and with House, Keaton broadens her aesthetic focus, moving beyond one region and style to examine how contemporary design defines the way we live now. Through the work of whimsical residences by architects like Annabelle Selldorf and Tom Kundig, one theme emerges: designers have the power to see the potential in our most forgotten spaces and materials, and transform them into a home.
I first wrote about Frank Chimero's book over a year ago, when he mounted an incredible Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Chimero raised over $112,000, funding his project in four hours, then going on to almost triple his goal. The book gets so many things right before you even get to the words: it's a beautifully designed, hardback, self-published (in the U.S.!) entrepreneurial success, which made me want to buy it just so I could see the result. But the actual writing is also fantastic. Chimero offers intelligent meditations on the motivation for designing, and looks far outside of the design world for examples, drawing anecdotes from musicians and chefs, and illustrating theories with references ranging from 18th-century haiku masters to Wall-E. Chimero writes a lot about the connections between design and jazz, and that's what his writing reminds me of most: it’s lyrical, rhythmic, soulful. It was a book that I didn't want to end.
It’s perhaps the most drastic change to the built environment over the last few decades, as cookie-cutter vinyl letters invaded our storefronts, wrestling out the age-old tradition of hand-painted signs. But recently, a sharp reaction to our over-digitized lifestyle has birthed a renaissance in the art of sign painting. In profiling two dozen masters, Faythe Levine and Sam Macon trace the time-honored techniques that define the industry, and demonstrate how veterans are passing down their skills to an eager younger generation. From members of the legendary San Francisco sign shop New Bohemia to artists like Stephen Powers to tradesmen like Doc Guthrie who teaches a vocational class in downtown L.A., Levine and Macon capture the spirit and resurgence of a craft which nearly disappeared forever. A documentary also produced by Levine and Macon will be released next year.
When I told people I was reading a book on the physicality of the Internet—the colocation centers, undersea cables, and yes, tubes that carry our emails, Facebook statuses, and YouTube videos to our desktops—I usually got a smirk. Under anyone else's guise, Tubes would have been a really dull read. But the witty and engaging Andrew Blum turns this topic into a global adventure, a Verne-esque Journey to the Center of the Internet, if you will, filling the pages not with boring treatises about “packets” and “rack units,” but the plucky personalities who move our data. Plus, in a book that's so much about place, he’s meticulous about setting each scene, noting temperatures, colors and scents—yes, the Internet smells!—with graphic detail, which makes these locations catapult off the page and into your subconscious. Since I’ve read the book, I think about Tubes every day, as I try to look for signs of the Internet as I move through our busy world. I can’t think of another book which has changed my worldview like that. And this book does it in a truly delightful way.
As the former design director for the National Endowment for the Arts, and co-author of the bible-like Suburban Nation, Jeff Speck has spent a lifetime helping American cities work better. Yet for all the innovation he witnessed, the greatest change always came from a return to one of our simplest actions: walking. Using real-world case studies (and an accessible, blissfully non-academic voice), Speck argues that a “walkable city”—a dense, urban environment designed with pedestrians in mind—is not only a nicer, healthier place to live and work, but can serve as an economic driver for the U.S. As new pedestrian plazas and car-free festivals proliferate across the country, the timing could not be better for Speck’s highly entertaining and inspiring vision for getting our country back on its feet.
If I could hand-pick someone to write the handbook for my profession, it would be the passionate, provocative, prolific Brooklyn-based architectural critic Alexandra Lange. In her singular voice, Lange essentially allows us to sit in on her lectures for the graduate classes she teaches at New York University and School of Visual Arts, including entire pieces by famous critics—like Herbert Muschamp's legendary review of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao—followed by comprehension questions. But even those of us who don’t aspire to make a living off our writing will benefit from reading Lange's book. While her intent is to educate the next generation of architectural critics, she is also focused on expanding the profession—building an army of citizen critics. Those of us who live in buildings should not only decide how we feel about a particular building, she explains, we should actively aspire to make the building, the block, the neighborhood, better. Writing About Architecture purports to be a textbook, but it’s really Lange's highly personal guide for any urban dweller on how to experience, explain, and improve our cities.
Comments about Alissa Walker’s Notable Books of 2012