Paul Macovsky

Editor / United States /

Paul Makovsky’s Notable Books of 2011

Just when you think interest in midcentury modern design is over, there comes along a spate of excellent design books that will make you reconsider the topic.

This year there are books offering groundbreaking new research on Edward Durell Stone, Bertrand Goldberg, and Roberto Burle Marx that have a lot of relevance for architects and designers today. And books like Jonathan Olivares’s A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit, and Jean-Louis Cohen’s Architecture in Uniform are models of design history scholarship, breaking new ground in the approach to their subject matter—whether it be the lowly office chair, a spacesuit, or design during World War II. The latest book from Maharam—a company that has been able to mine a modernist sensibility but make it completely contemporary and relevant—is also a gem, and comes complete with its own embroidered cover.

4 books
Wendy Kaplan Editor

Feeling depressed about design these days? Then the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same name, “California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way” (on view through June 3, 2012), will certainly cheer you up. Sure, the seeds of midcentury California modernism were sown in the years immediately preceding World War II—just think of the furniture of Kem Weber or the architecture of Rudolf Schindler—but it was really only after the war with the booming postwar economy that the new aesthetic really blossomed, a period that produced talents as Julius Shulman, the Eameses, Alvin Lustig, and Pierre Koenig. The book also digs up obscure designers like Arlene Fisch, a jewelry designer who combined silver with colorful enamels; Doyle Lane, an Los Angeles-based African American craftsman who worked mainly in ceramics; and Olga Lee, a textile designer who was married to Milo Baughman, a furniture designer who also figures prominently in the show. You’ll come away thinking, what happened to American design in the decades since?

Hicks Stone

During their lifetimes, both Ed Stone and Eero Saarinen graced the covers of Time magazine. History has treated Eero Saarinen well, with a number of traveling exhibitions and books appearing in recent years; Ed Stone less so. This monograph, written by Stone’s son, offers a personal and authoritative biography of this misunderstood architect who was celebrated in the mainstream press but often ridiculed in the architectural community. Hicks Stone not only details his father’s achievements but also writes honestly about the architect’s career, relationships, and struggles with alcohol. Stone had an unorthodox view of modern architecture, experimenting with decorative patterned screening and integrating the natural landscape with architecture, and was critical of the effects of automobile culture—all very topical today. Let’s hope he finally gets his due.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ve probably marveled at Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers—nicknamed the Corncobs. The architect worked on everything from a 1939 plywood chair to a futuristic hospital complete with four concrete towers (and now threatened with demolition). You’ll find some gems in this book, like the Ralph Helstein House of 1950–52, an early experiment with concrete; and the John Snyder House on Shelter Island—an aquarium on steroids. Goldberg was less successful with his furniture design, but certainly inspirational even today with his large-scale urban planning.

Jean-Louis Cohen

Jean-Louis Cohen is my kind of architectural historian. He does a deep dive into a neglected subject—this time modern architecture during World War II—and comes up with original perspectives on the subject. He discovers many projects that are not well known—like Dan Kiley’s courtroom for the Nuremberg trials or Salvador Dali’s take on camouflage (he was all for it). And did you know that Le Corbusier spent much of the war unsuccessfully lobbying the Vichy government for work, only to erase that period in his biographical notes written in 1945? Cohen documents some of the period’s more successful examples, like Richard Neutra’s affordable housing in San Pedro, California; and Gropius and Breuer’s low-cost Aluminum City Housing—examples that we could all learn from today. War is never pretty, and Cohen shows that World War II was a key moment (both good and bad) in the modernization of architectural theory and practice.

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