Notable Design Books: Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: October Reviews

October 4, 2013


Our October reviews bring you books that cover Italian architect Carlo Scarpa’s Venetian glass designs, Le Corbusier’s religious buildings, and some unique Swiss bridges. Other highlights, to name just two, include the talked-about children’s guide to graphic design from the field’s “rock star,” Chip Kidd; and architecture critic and author Witold Rybczynski’s 18th book, which demystifies architecture for a broad audience. 

Notable Design Books of 2013 have been selected by members of our Book Board. You can also view the complete list of Notable Design Books of 2013, in our signature grid format.

Book Board members who have participated in selecting titles for our September post are Allison Arieff, Zara ArshadJohn HillEllen Lupton, Phil Patton, and Norman Weinstein.

Marino Barovier
Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947

By Marino Barovier
Skira (May 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947 by Marino Barovier, 2013 (Skira)

The author’s name and family authority should resonate with lovers of Venetian glass because the Baroviers have been in the Murano glass business since 1295 C.E., making it arguably the oldest company of family artisans ever. Marino Barovier has written with charm and impressive erudition about Venetian glass art in general, and Carlo Scarpa as glass designer in particular in his previously published, and sadly out-of-print Carlo Scarpa: Glass of an Architect. Scarpa’s glass-designing career centered on work at two Venetian companies, M.V.M. Cappelin and Venini. The newly published Carlo Scarpa: Venini 1932–1947 drops mention of Scarpa’s Cappelin oeuvre previously illuminated in Glass of an Architect, in favor of his more technically accomplished, more wildly colorful and dramatically patterned Venini glass works. The result? A keenly written and photographically masterful catalogue raisonné of nearly 300 of Scarpa’s most daring glass designs (the contents of the 2012 exhibition in Venice “Venetian Glass: Carlo Scarpa,” coming to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in abbreviated form in November 2013).

Carlo Scarpa, Murine Romane designed for Venini, 1936. Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice

Carlo Scarpa, Decoro a fili, designed for Venini, 1942–47. The thread-decorated vases are part of one of the last series designed by Scarpa for Venini. The surface of these clear glass items is coiled with hot-applied multicolored threads arranged in a more or less thick irregular pattern. From Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947, courtesy of Skira

The book categorizes glass pieces by production techniques. Within every production technique category are examples of decorative glass (vases and plates) and non-decorative glass (candlesticks). This banquet of thumbnail and full-size photos of the pieces accompanied by exhibition-terse captions is prefaced by six interpretative essays by various historians and critics, and a poignant memoir by Carlo Scarpa’s son Tobias (who has had a long and successful glass-designing career since his father’s death.). If you suspect that the 2013 Met Scarpa exhibition hints at a richer story, this grand summary of how Scarpa brought the fiery spirit of freshly minted modernism to the ancient art of Venetian glass offers a passionately panoramic overview.

Henry Plummer
Cosmos of Light

By Henry Plummer
Indiana University Press (March 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Cosmos of Light: The Sacred Architecture of Le Corbusier by Henry Plummer, 2013 (Indiana University Press)

In 2013, The Museum of Modern Art examined the career of Le Corbusier in a comprehensive exhibition and a hefty companion book featuring numerous scholarly and critical essays charting the Swiss-French architect’s six-decade career. Yet like other great modern architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn), even the most exhaustive account of Le Corbusier’s output cannot derail new explorations of his buildings and new books being released on the visionary architect every season.

An antithesis of MoMA’s unwieldy show and book can be found in Henry Plummer’s photographic and personal account of three religious structures in France designed by Le Corbusier: the chapel at Ronchamp, the monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, and the parish church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy-Vert. Light, as the title makes clear, is the subject of the book. Le Corbusier famously declared that “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes assembled in space,” and nowhere is that more moving than in these three concrete buildings designed after 1950, one of them (Firminy-Vert) completed posthumously.

Le Corbusier, Church of Saint-Pierre, Firminy-Vert, France. View looking south to “upwardly springing” waves of light. From Cosmos of Light, courtesy of Indiana University Press

While this statement is interpreted usually as an argument for the bright white surfaces of Le Corbusier’s “heroic” period in the 1920s and early ’30s, the idea resonates in these three buildings primarily because they are so dark—shadow is just as important as light. That these are places of prayer and introspection, and not houses or schools, is hardly accidental, even though Le Corbusier was, as Plummer puts it in this introductory essay, “an outspoken agnostic.”

Le Corbusier, Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France. View of south wall from north entrance. From Cosmos of Light, courtesy of Indiana University Press

Buildings like Villa Savoye whitewash their brick and concrete construction to create platonic abstractions, but the three béton brut structures that are the subject of this book are stripped of superficialities and bear the process of making. Further, light takes on an almost tangible quality to heighten one’s perception in the otherwise empty spaces. Plummer’s photos—taken over a period of 20 years—capture the way light turns these plastic creations (unprecedented in form and detached from religious precedents) into meaningful sacred spaces. Plummer manages to convey the way Le Corbusier puts us in touch with the light that comes from beyond—out of reach but all too real.

Abbott Miller
Formica Forever

Edited and designed by Abbott Miller; with texts by Alexandrea Lange, Phil Patton, and Peter York
Metropolis Books/Formica Corporation (July 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

Formica Forever, edited and designed by Abbott Miller; texts by Alexandra Lange, Phil Patton, and Peter York, 2013 (Metropolis Books/Formica Corporation)

Glamour! Durability! Beauty! Sequins! Submarines! The rich and varied history of, yes, Formica, is explored in this perky paperback, Essays by design critics Phil Patton and Alexandra Lange and Peter York, a management consultant and author, bring depth, getting beneath the surface, if you will, of the lowly (or luxurious, depending on your perspective) laminate. Lange explores the essential duality of Formica by delving into the real meaning of luxury: “Is it rosewood and leather, silk and lacquer, gold leaf and silver? Or is it the freedom from the cost of installing and maintaining these fine natural materials...?” The jury is still out on that one but I'm guessing the ability to pay for someone to maintain those natural materials is the ultimate luxury for many. York argues that as the  “wipe-clean” material, Formica became a symbol not only of low maintenance but of societal progress. In his detailed and comprehensive historical essay, Patton recounts the materials struggle for popularity throughout its history as in the 60s when “a rebellious generation sought the natural, the organic...[Formica] was, after all, the material of their parents.”

The literary references to the material are a real treat (Updike, Atwood, Ian Fleming). “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing from a 2005 issue of The New Yorker is a favorite: “Miss Lowe drew shapes on the Formica tabletop with her fingertip: ‘Do you ever get lonely, Thomas?’”

The familiar hues will make you smile (or shudder) about countertops and vanities of yore. I love the design (by Abbott Miller) save for its inexplicable perforated pages that serve no real purpose. (Yes, I know it’s modeled after a Formica swatch book but it feels gratuitous here).

2003 (right) Pumpkin laminate, 4152. From Formica Forever, courtesy of Metropolis Books
Chip Kidd
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design

By Chip Kidd
Workman Publishing (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Maryland Institute College of Art)

Also see our interview with Chip Kidd on Go.

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, by Chip Kidd, 2013 (Workman Publishing)

Go is a book about graphic design aimed at anyone aged 10 years or older. That includes me. This hardcover book is fun to hold and handle. Despite its generous trim size (8.5 x 11), this is no coffee table book. It’s for reading and using, not for contemplation or display. After reading the whole thing on a recent flight from Baltimore to Denver, I exited the plane with a renewed grasp of visual thinking. This sharply written, boldly designed volume actively shows and demonstrates visual principles. Kidd’s book resembles a good keynote presentation transformed into print. While many instructional design books cram their layouts with pictures and captions and explanations, Kidd keeps his pages simple and direct but always surprising. Since many of the examples come from Kidd’s own work, a frisky subversive magic pervades the book. A spread on “Light and Dark” features two of Kidd's psychologically disturbing photographic covers. A sequence of pages on “Big and Small” takes the reader through a series of exciting transformations. After making short work of formal principles, Kidd presents a compact and compelling guide to typography (wow, that was easy), and then amazes the reader with ideas about how to build the bridge between content and form through metaphor, literal and suggestive imagery, ironic conflict, and more.

I could easily use this book in a college-level introduction to graphic design or a workshop for adult learners. Kidd makes graphic design accessible, compelling, and real.

Interior pages from Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design. Courtesy of Workman Publishing
Lauren D. Whitley
Hippie Chic

By Lauren D. Whitley
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (July 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Hippie Chic by Lauren D. Whitley, 2013 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Perhaps the most discerning and fair-minded reviewer of this exhibition catalogue for the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston’s wildly popular textiles and fashion exhibition “Hippie Chic” would be someone who didn’t actually experience that decade wearing some of the clothing represented in this show. On the other hand, this reviewer, having been there and done that, is quite enthusiastically willing to deal with the multiple virtues and vices of this catalogue, facets that might be overlooked by those who have simply studied the era with a degree of scholarly detachment and generational distance.

As curator of the MFA Boston’s impressive collection of 45,000 textiles and costumes, Lauren D. Whitley brings a generous awareness of the forerunners of sixties garb, particularly the sinewy Art Nouveau roots of the wildly patterned, shockingly colorful, psychedelic dresses, blouses, suits, and robes of the time. She is equally sensitive to the DIY trends in which those without fashion design training reconfigured indigenous people’s clothing designs that soon became appropriated by mainstream fashion houses and publications. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles, familiar musical icons of the hippie era spanning the mid-1960s to early ’70s, appear in their rainbow-hued and dazzling splendor, along with many obscure and forgotten figures. Swirls of radiantly layered leathers, beads, and fringe, often on shirts and jackets androgynously contoured, emphasize the era’s spirit of surrealistically exotic hedonism.

Where Whitley trips (sorry about that!) herself up occurs through her questionable categories of “Trippy Hippie,” “Fantasy Hippie,” “Retro Hippie,” “Ethic Hippie,” and “Craft Hippie.” In actuality, the designs inspired by drugs, music, and indigenous peoples, and neo-Art Nouveau accents constantly intertwined, and were juxtaposed as well as even superimposed on one another in both individual and group wardrobes. Although Philippe Garner in Sixties Design (TASCHEN) puts sundry varieties of hippie fashion under one sprawling chapter heading of “Pop Culture – Pop Style,” an arguable category, I think it does less harm to the anarchistic spirit of hippie chic than Whitley’s hair-splitting that fragments a complexly knotted zeitgeist into sentimental moments of fad fashion.

Dress designed by Thea Porter (English, b. Jerusalem, 1927–2000), about 1970 Printed silk plain weave, cotton embroidery. Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From Hippie Chic, courtesy of Fine Arts, Boston

Hippie clothes were about shout-out abstract color masses with Pop Art sinewy typography in motion. This was clothing intended to dance in when going to a Joplin or Hendrix concert—not clothing worn to emulate the look of musical stars. To dance in hippie clothing was to become a human kaleidoscope. Seeing it on pale white mannequins enervates instead of stimulates.

But I’m holding on to my copy of Hippie Chic nevertheless. It makes me wish I had never given away my purple velvet cowboy shirt or my Peruvian poncho that seconded as a dandy’s cape.

Witold Rybczynski
How Architecture Works

By Witold Rybczynski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times)

Also see our interview with Witold Rybczynski on How Architecture Works.

How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, by Witold Rybczynski, 2013 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Architects and their friends should celebrate this book but probably won’t. With the nod in its subtitle to old-fashioned “humanism,” it would be a very useful book for the college course every architect and believer in architecture wishes were required of every freshman. That is, it is general enough, reasonable enough, and accommodating enough to leave the right impression about architecture with people who will never read another book on the subject—people who will go on to work outside of architecture’s professional culture.

This is the way the author appears to see it as well.  The book is dedicated to Rybczynski’s freshman seminar students, aptly enough, and unreels in chapters arranged by ten concepts, the tools, such as “site” and “details.” The main sense here is a lack of the shrillness of most architectural discussion. Rybczynski’s career and life been characterized by reasonableness and practicality, context and measure—in short, most of the qualities absent from talk about architecture.

Witold Rybczynski came onto the public scene with his book Home: a Short History of an Idea at a time when the stridency of the dialogue of architecture was particularly irritating. He offered up a simple concept: comfort as the goal of designers.  Some of us knew him even earlier from his book Taming the Tiger, a thoughtful consideration of technology that showed his range of interest and thought, and we delighted in his little book, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

Architect Petre Bohlin’s living room. Photo: Witold Rybczynski. From How Architecture Works, courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Rybczynski is real architect—someone who can design a building. Until recently he taught in an academic design and planning program that did not shy away from using the term “real estate” its name. In the age of star architecture he feels the need to remind the reader that buildings reflect much about the corporations as well as the cities and countries that build them. (Cherchez the client!)

A virtue of the toolkit of concepts format is that is shows how down to earth architecture can be, in terms of both function and aesthetics. Rybczynski says, “Most architecture, a backdrop for our everyday lives, is experienced in bits and pieces—the glimpsed view of a distant spire, the intricacy of a wrought-iron railing, the soaring space of a railroad station waiting room. Sometimes it’s just a detail, a well-shaped door handle, a window framing a perfect little view, a rosette carved into a chapel pew. And we say to ourselves, ‘How nice. Someone actually thought of that.’” Along the way, we get good explanations of the skyscraper story—steel skeleton, Sulllivan, the whole tale—in just a few pages, plus talk about things like why there are no mosquito screens at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. He manages to work in the basic names and ideas and stories, the Wright, and Sullivan and Le Corbusier chestnuts, but he also walks up to real landmarks and looks at the hinges on their doors.

Seji Ozawa Hall, Lenox Massachusetts, designed by William Rawn. Photo: Photo: Daderot. Licesnsed under the terns of the GNU Free Documentationt License, Version 1.2. From How Architecture Works, courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

The book is also dedicated to the proposition that theory has no place in architecture. “I believe that architecture emerges from the act of building,” he writes. “Theories, if they have any place at all, are an indulgence of the scholar, not a need of the practitioner.” That at least is one theory. Architecture should work, as the title suggests. The passage is likely to set off many practitioners and professors equally. It suggests that many of the problems of recent architecture, measured by half centuries, say, have to do with the persistent overlap of scholar (or at least academic) and practitioner. But I also like to imagine that this is the sort of book that will help produce a more tolerant and understanding City Councilman or a board of directors member decades hence.

Glenn Adamson
The Invention of Craft

By Glenn Adamson
Bloomsbury (July 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Zara Arshad (Design China)

The Invention of Craft by Glenn Adamson, 2013 (Bloomsbury)

Craft is often lamented in the modern world, perceived to be “under constant assault…[by] more powerful and efficient forms of production that we call ‘industry.’” The almost-romanticized notion is that “We must try to turn the clock back, to revive craft’s organic role in society, or at least slow the pace of its vanishing.” Newly appointed Director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and present Head of Research at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum Glenn Adamson, however, contests this position in his latest and most fascinating book, The Invention of Craft, which presents craft as a modern invention. Set over four chapters—Manipulation, Mystery, Mechanical, and Memory—and concentrating on case studies set in either Europe or America, Adamson presents craft as a powerful and progressive force that was born out of the Industrial Revolution: “Craft was not a static backdrop against which industry emerged like a figure from the ground. Rather, the two were created alongside one another, each defined against the other through constant juxtaposition.”

In the opening chapter, for instance, Adamson argues that labor management contributed to the sidelining of craft in the 18th and 19th centuries more so than mechanization. Indeed, “in Europe in 1850 there were undoubtedly more skilled artisans, plying a far greater range of trades, than there had been in 1750.” However, the division of labor into specialized and more efficient, easier-to-manage tasks “led to the erosion of the artisan’s autonomy and economic advantage, without necessarily involving a reduction in skill”. This process, of course, remains integral to our increasingly outsourced and globalized economy of today.

Another intriguing premise brought forth in the same chapter is visual representation, like drawing, as a key mechanism of design control. The introduction of industry pattern books, for example, presented considerable difficulties to their users who were expected to understand and translate elaborate drawings and printed images into tangible objects. Furthermore, “writers who instructed craftspeople in draftsmanship warned them not to attain to the ‘cerebral or conceptual’ sort of drawing a fine artist might practice, but rather the more mechanical skill of direct copying.” This method of practice “enabled greater control over the social and material world through enhanced clarity, transparency, and visual certainty at a distance.” In other words, techniques of visual representation placed tight constraints on the free practice of skill, which was necessary for the development of distributed agency.

From The Invention of Craft, courtesy of Bloomsbury

Although an overall challenging read, Adamson presents an array of contextual arguments grounded in rigorous research, which allow the reader to draw their own comparisons as one delves further into the book. In chapter three, for instance, the author touches upon Victorian attitudes toward non-Western makers, while in the closing chapter, unusual parallels are made between a quilt created by anonymous prisoners at HMP Wandsworth in 2010 and the Duchess of Cambridge’s royal wedding bridal gown (designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen in 2011). Feminist methodology also comes to the fore in the closing passage, as a wide range of women’s crafts are examined across a spectrum—from disempowerment to radicalism—where craft emerges as “a complex and contradictory form of self-reliance.” By shifting between different centuries and fast-tracking to the present day, Adamson carefully illustrates how craft is not only rooted in modernity but also how it has constantly manipulated itself to remain relevant to contemporary technology.

Finally, if craft is dependent on skillful hands, those hands manipulating the material become part of the meaning of the work, Adamson argues. “In reality, craft remains one of the most effective means of materializing belief, of transforming the world around us, and less positively, of controlling the lives of others. Without understanding the way it operates…we are liable to simply fall under its spell.”

Felix Burrichter
PIN-UP Interviews

Text by Felix Burrichter
powerHouse Books (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

PIN-UP Interviews, text by Felix Burrichter, 2013 (powerHouse Books)

Since editor Felix Burrichter launched PIN-UP in 2006, a staple of the biannual “magazine for architectural entertainment” has been the interviews with architects, designers, artists, photographers, and other persons of interest. Often accompanied by candid photos of the subjects shot exclusively for the publication, the interviews adopt a “less serious approach” to reveal the “surprising depths” hiding below the “shallow surfaces,” as Burrichter puts it in the introduction to the 57 interviews collected in this first PIN-UP book. The same can be said of the magazine, which resembles a fashion rag more than an architectural journal—Issue 3, the first copy I purchased, features a portfolio of naked bodies in designer chairs and a perfume ad on the back cover with a topless woman cupping her breasts—but below the visual saturation is deep, insightful commentary on architectural culture.

Missing from the book is the imagery that originally accompanied the interviews—they are presented simply as words on a page, a fact to which the cover attests. But this omission does not diminish the content in any way; in fact it strengthens what is being said by focusing solely on just that. Images have a way of revealing things that words cannot describe, but they also have a way of distracting us, putting us in “skim mode” when we could be slowly absorbing more insightful information.

Interview with Rem Koolhaas by Francesco Vezzoli. From PIN-UP Interviews, courtesy of powerHouse Books 

Interview with Rem Koolhaas by Francesco Vezzoli. From PIN-UP Interviews, courtesy of powerHouse Books

PIN-UP Interviews benefits from this concerted selection of words over images, but also from the choice of who converses with the likes of David Adjaye, Jeanne Gang, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Meier, ROLU, and James Wines. (I’m partial to the architects in the collection, though it should be noted they comprise about half to two-thirds of the interviews.) Burrichter and his fellow editors are frequent interviewers, but this is not like a collection of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “infinite conversations” where one voice prevails; the diversity of voices on the question side sometimes brings PIN-UP Interviews closer to Interview magazine, where big names talk to each other. Examples in this vein are Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli’s conversation with Rem Koolhaas, where each seems to be interviewing the other; and landscape artist Fritz Haeg’s interview with Julius Shulman at the photographer’s studio, in which talk of his gardens is a major ingredient. These are two highlights among many worthwhile reads. 

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