Notable Design Books: Reviews

17 Notable Design Books of 2013: December Reviews

December 5, 2013


Our December reviews cover architecture from suburbs to staircases, and graphic design from Swiss magazines to the work of Dutch book designer Irma Boom. We look at a new book on the product designs of Eva Zeisel, the interiors of Mario Buatta, and Moroccan carpets—and even a book from the minds at IDEO on how to achieve “creative confidence.”

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 December post are Stanley AbercrombieAllison ArieffWendy GoodmanJohn Hill, Ellen Lupton, Phil Patton, Maria PopovaWitold Rybczynski, and Norman Weinstein.

Tom Kelley
David Kelley
Creative Confidence

By Tom Kelley and David Kelley
Crown Business (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times)

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All, by Tom Kelley and David Kelley, 2013 (Crown Business)

David Kelley is one of the founders of IDEO and of the Stanford (note the small “d,” using Silicon Valley-style informality for what is officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). His brother Tom Kelley is an IDEO partner and the author of the best-selling book The Art of Innovation. The brothers’ new book builds on the idea of innovation, America’s favorite business value these days, and is wrapped in the concept of “design thinking.”

The book looks like one of those business books for sale in airport shops, with big type, lots of pull quotes in large type, and bullet points. This is unfortunate, because it is more profound than that and packed with important ideas. “Too often, companies and individuals assume that creativity and innovation are the domain of the ‘creative types,’” the authors argue. Their idea is to show that everyone can and must be creative—by which they mean everyone also can and must be innovative and, yes, can and must be designers.

Creative Confidence is full of useful techniques for analysis and research (and indeed indoctrination) taken from IDEO’s practice to bolster this claim. Many of IDEO’s famous techniques involve groups. They are also good politics for designers, who must persuade employees of companies they are doing something important to have their work implemented.

Some of the Kelleys’ advice provides the commendable function of demystifying creativity. For instance, one page shows a box of tips on how to look at customers of clients—hang around, like a fly on the wall, talk to longtime employees like a receptionist, experiment with customer service. There is the suggestion of what the Kelleys call a “bug list,” to chart defects in a situation or product. The brothers also address the problem of getting people to draw who don’t normally do so, with a series of exercises and a suggested stick figure vocabulary.

Another of the Kelleys’ key points is the need to celebrate failure. One case of repeated failure they cite is that of Ankit Gupta, who developed the iPhone app Pulse while still a student. The story demonstrates the importance of iteration: the designer spent days working on the app in café on University Ave in Palo Alto, taking suggestions from other cafe customers. “1 learned that creativity is always hindsight,” says Ankit. “It’s not about just coming up with the one genius idea that solves the problem, but trying and failing at a hundred other solutions before arriving at the best one.” The story suggests one of the many ways the word “creativity” itself needs a redefinition—or is that redesign?

Like design thinking or innovation—both overused terms—creativity as a word may be a problem. Creativity suggests imagination, whole visions, and worlds. But many of the situations and solutions described in the book are closer to cleverness than creativity. The point may be that the innovative and creative are often not so brilliant or aesthetic. Many of the suggested creativity exercises end up turning a situation sideways to look at it from a new perspective.

The book’s voice slips from “we” to those of individual brothers in a slightly strange way. The pair wrote the book when David Kelley was fighting for his life against cancer, we are told in first few pages—jarringly, since the news comes amid the book’s upbeat, even jaunty graphics. Perhaps this is why it appears at times to be a summary of life lessons as much as a book on design. But that could be the point, since the argument of Creative Confidence is redefining creativity.

Matthew Stadler

By Matthew Stadler
Designed and illustrated by Tae Won Yu
nai101 Publishers (December 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Deventer, by Matthew Stadler, 2013 (nai010 Publishers)

Deventer is a small city in the Netherlands with just under 100,000 residents—the equivalent of a Flint, Michigan, or Kenosha, Wisconsin, in population terms. The city is an unlikely setting for what is described as a novel-like retelling of two projects, one architectural and one urban planning, both on sites of hospitals and both involving Matthijs Bouw and his firm One Architecture. Bouw is also an unlikely choice, but novelist Matthew Stadler’s interests lie in the architect’s unique working process and the resulting interactions between Bouw, the clients, and the residents of Deventer.

Stadler’s narrative treatment of the true events around the two projects takes liberty with time, just one of the ways that the book departs from more traditional architectural history to make the architectural process accessible to a wider audience. As one example, Stadler visits the completed architectural project near the beginning of the book, heading back in time later in the book to discuss how Bouw and company designed their intervention. The future of the urban planning project is less certain, stemming from a number of factors, including the economic problems taking place at the time (post–2008), the desire of the developers to take their winning bid and depart from Bouw’s brilliant yet highly prescriptive plan, and the fact that masterplans typically leave room for change in architecture and other forms (think of Daniel Libeskind’s winning masterplan for the World Trade Center site compared to what is being built today).

Page from Deventer by Matthew Stadler, courtesy of nai010 Publishers

While the highly specific projects and scenarios revolving around Matthijs Bouw mean this book cannot serve as a template for narrative treatments of other buildings, it does illustrate that architecture can be made interesting for wider consumption. Films, TV shows, books, and other forms of narration prefer doctors, lawyers, police, and other life-or-death professions, to the chagrin of architects who find what they do just as fascinating. Architectural projects unfold through myriad conflicts and compromises by a large and complex cast of characters; the decisions that occur along the way may not be life or death, but their influence is great and last for years and decades. If there is one thing that can be exported from Stadler’s enjoyable story it is the value in having somebody from outside the architectural profession observe and document the process, so that other books would appeal to more than just architects and—like Deventer—be cognizant of the people who will ultimately occupy an architect’s creation.

 Page from Deventer by Matthew Stadler, courtesy of nai010 Publishers
Philip Jodidio
Discovering Architecture

By Philip Jodidio and Elizabeth Dowling
Universe/Rizzoli (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Discovering Architecture: How the World’s Great Buildings Were Designed and Built, by Philip Jodidio and Elizabeth Dowling, 2013 (Universe/Rizzoli)

Books explaining architecture to a general audience are a commendable if tiny segment of books on the subject. Yet as architects ask for a more educated public in matters of architecture, there is room for much improvement. For every Understanding Architecture or How Architecture Works there is Architecture for Dummies or some other title that is lacking in how to convey the most elementary information. So Philip Jodidio’s Discovering Architecture is a welcome addition to the genre, with its wide-ranging selection of buildings, large color photos, and inventive captions.

Jodidio (a prolific author who seems to pen ten books on a slow year) normally focuses on contemporary buildings by big-name architects, but less than twenty of the fifty buildings collected in this coffee table book were completed after 1900; only two since 2000. Most of the selection “from the Christian era to the present” is fairly obvious, be it Hagia Sophia, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, the Bauhaus, or the Guggenheim Bilbao. This is to be expected with such an overview. And while Jodidio is not afraid to venture to Asia beyond the usual European and North American masterpieces, only one building in Australia and South America each are found, and none from Africa. But this does not detract from the book’s strong presentation.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India, from Discovering Architecture by Philip Jodidio and Elizabeth Dowling, courtesy of Universe/Rizzoli. Photo: Vanni / Art Resource, NY 

Each of the 50 buildings is treated in the same manner: one page of descriptive text faces a full-bleed, full-page photo (many, but not all of the projects have two more pages of photos). In between the text and photo is a gray page with rectangular die cuts and captions describing the respective views onto the photo underneath. These die-cut captions highlight the important formal aspects of each building (the photos typically show the exterior, but sometimes the interior, such as with Grand Central Terminal), but they also educate the reader on how to “read” architecture through photographs. This tactic makes a good deal of sense given today’s preference for documenting buildings, old and new, through photography.

The die cuts and captions elevate the book above a fairly cursory presentation of 50 great buildings—in addition to the above criticism about geography, I wish there were just more photos. On first reading the windows in the gray pages also add a bit of surprise to the chronological journey through architecture, making it fun even for the most knowledgeable architecture buffs.

Pat Kirkham
Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty

Edited by Pat Kirkham
Chronicle Books (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Maryland Institute College of Art)

Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty, edited by Pat Kirkham, 2013 (Chronicle Books)

At once scholarly and intimate, this book honors the unique life and artistic achievements of Eva Zeisel. Born in Hungary in 1906, Zeisel endured two world wars and the Soviet revolution, spending 16 months in a Russian prison and escaping Nazi persecution before emigrating to the U.S. in 1938. Pat Kirkham’s biographical essay unfolds beneath a timeline of historic photographs plucked from over a century of family history. Kirkham’s personal friendship with Zeisel adds depth and feeling to the biographer’s meticulous research. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Zeisel told Kirkham about watching the countdown to the year 2000. “‘It was my century,’” Zeisel said with tears in her eyes, having lived through the best and worst those decades of violence and invention had to offer.

After the astonishing life comes the equally astonishing work, photographed with magical light by Brent Brolin and chronicled by Kirkham and her co-authors, Pat Moore and Pirco Wolfframm, who also became devoted friends and scholars of all things Zeisel. Whether emerging out of darkness or basking against a warm, bright glow, each piece pops with boldness of contour and subtlety of surface. Zeisel was a master form-maker, but she also had a flair for decoration. A 1930 tea set is spotted with soft blue and yellow dots; a 1955 kitchenware ensemble for Hall China Company is glazed in a v-neck of pink and blue. Zeisel called herself a modernist with a little “m.” She knew enough about the so-called Machine Aesthetic to reject it for something all her own. She made her pieces in families, creating relationships of form and counterform that suggest love among people rather than things. That love, and the love that people had for her, comes through on every page.

Carstens flower tea set by Eva Zeisel. From Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty, edited by Pat Kirkham, courtesy of Chronicle Books

Cloverware by Eva Zeisel. From Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty, edited by Pat Kirkham, courtesy of Chronicle Books


Irma Boom
Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book

By Irma Boom
Introduction by Rem Koolhaas; text by Mathieu Lommen
Lecturis (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book: Books in Reverse Chronological Order, 2013–1986, by Irma Boom, 2013 (Lecturis)

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan memorably asserted, and nowhere is the physical making of a book more akin to the making of magic than in the work of Dutch book designer and artist Irma Boom—the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Gutenberg Prize and a denizen of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which includes more than 50 of her books. The Architecture of the Book is a design memoir of sorts that offers a complete overview of her work in 800 tiny pages that measure 1.75 inches by 2.15 inches.

Observing the rise of digital text and e-books, Boom defies the typical dystopian narrative of print-traditionalists and instead argues that the competition between these two media “encourages us to explore the intrinsic characteristics of the printed book more intensely.” Rather than a challenge, she sees in this an opportunity for a kind of Renaissance and argues that “we stand on the verge of a new flourishing of the classic book.”

And, indeed, what Boom has created here is a micro-manifesto for the printed book at its most alive. In an era when e-books boast interactivity and responsiveness as an advantage over the static printed page, Boom reverses this proposition. Her books, while physical, are highly interactive—they offer a reason for reflection and bear a responsive relationship between the content and the empathic form, the former always dictating the latter. For, as Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, “all great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation”—and what Boom brings to the book is precisely this: a dynamic contemplation.

From the exhibition “Irma Boom: L’architecture du livre 2013–1986” at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris, on view from September 17 to December 15, 2013. Photo: John Kudos
Charles Churchward (photo: Jonathan Becker)
It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman

By Charles Churchward
Rizzoli (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times)

It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman All, by Charles Churchward, 2013 (Rizzoli)

Alexander Liberman lived multiple lives—some of them sequentially and some of them simultaneously. He was a vector, as immunologists call it, of modernism. Liberman (1912–99), was born in Kiev under the czars on the eve of the Russian Revolution and his bio tracks modernist history from Constructivism through exile in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s across the Atlantic to the flourishing of modernism in postwar America. Modernism came to America through New York, riding ocean liners and the waves of war and revolution. Liberman stands as sort of node of influences, Kevin Bacon style, of its major personalities.

The son of an economic advisor to the czars who even Lenin found so useful he continued to rely on him for many years, young Alexandre drew and painted and visited museums in Europe after the family left Russia. He ended up educated as a French aristocrat just in time for the arrival of World War II and he moved on to New York.

Liberman was hired at Condé Nast magazines. He rose quickly—aided as much by personal charm as by skill. By 1960 he headed all the Condé Nast magazines, and would continue to do so for more than 30 years. For those magazines he hired Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton and then little-known photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Deborah Turbeville. (He visited Matisse and Picasso in their studios and made photographs himself.) He was pals with Calder and Motherwell.

But Liberman brought ideas as well as contacts. The book title, It’s Modern, comes from a phrase of explanation he regularly directed at young art directors after altering their work. The torn edges and collaged layers of magazines he ran were some times mocked as “ransom note style.” Happily, actual magazine pages are reproduced in this book, whose format is unusual—a sort of scrapbook of photos, works of art, and sketches. These are interspersed with memoirs, all edited by Charles Churchward an editor, author, art director, and designer who worked with Liberman. (I wrote about Lieberman in the early 1980s. I met him in his office. He was proud how clean and empty his desk was. I did not know then but the book suggests those walks generated waves of terror among employees ahead of his visits.) He could tear up layouts and stories.)

Vogue cover, 1941. Photo: Horst P. Horst, Vogue © Conde Nast Publications. From It’s Modern by Charles Churchward, courtesy of Rizzoli

Liberman’s story is a reminder that modernism moved through magazines and advertising as much or more as through galleries and museums. This book makes clear the perhaps surprising tie between the layouts of, say, Self magazine in the 1980s and the cutting-edge newsmagazines in Europe in the 1930s.

Liberman ran his magazine empire while simultaneously forging a career as painter and sculptor. He painted and drew constantly. If during his life his own art was underrated because of his success in the “conventional” (media) world, the examples included in the book, however, stand out well. There is a painting that is visibly aware of the Russian constructivists; it stands comparison to Ellsworth Kelly of the same period, circa 1950. The sculpture is smart and witty.

Sculpture by Alexander Liberman, Iliad, 1974–77. Photo: Charles Churchward.From It’s Modern by Charles Churchward, courtesy of Rizzoli

One of the modernist strains in Liberman’s story is the familiar one of the European falling in love with America and discovering new things there and revealing them to the native. Some European modernists fell in love with American skyscrapers and grain elevators. Lieberman and others found inspiration in what Duchamp called “bridges and plumbing”—mundane structures like T-square girders and piping. Liberman made sculpture of giant boilers and pipe sections. Painted red and welded in 3D collage, they became public sculpture, shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington to and at Storm King sculpture park in New York State. But he was never separated from his origins: the pipes also reminded him of cannons at the Kremlin, he said.

Another of Liberman's lives resembles a Nabokov novel. Hollywood dapper and suave, he recalls any number of film characters and played many roles. He has been described as a chameleon with women. Around 1936 he was briefly married to a German ski champion named Hilda Sturm and became for a time an outdoorsman. But for much of his life he was famously indulgent toward one wife. He ended up married to Tatiana du Plessix, a legendary Russian beauty famous as the muse of the doomed poet Mayakovsky and the mother of Francine du Plessix Gray. I met Tatiana briefly. What left the deepest impression was the famous pool built to indulge Tatiana—an open-air saltwater heated swimming pool in steaming in winter Connecticut. In the middle of those energy crisis years it seemed an indulgence worthy of the czars.

James W.P. Campbell
Will Pryce
The Library

By James W.P. Campbell
Photographs by Will Pryce
University of Chicago Press (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Stanley Abercrombie

The Library: A World History, James W.P. Campbell; photographs by Will Pryce, 2013 (University of Chicago Press)

To some of us, there is nothing more handsome or interesting than a wall of books. This is the book for us. For its preparation, the author, director of studies in architecture and art history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and his masterful photographer visited 82 libraries in 21 countries. Their chapters carry us chronologically from “Lost Beginnings” to “The Future of Libraries in the Electronic Age” with stops along the way including “Cupboards, Chains and Stalls” (the 16th century) and “Angels, Frescoes, and Secret Doors” (the 18th). The oldest extant example we see is the ancient Roman Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey, c.135 AD, and the most recent the 2012 Liyuan Library in Jiaojiehe, China, designed by Chinese architect Li Xiaodong, its rustic twig-faced exterior hiding an elegantly finished interior.

The book amply demonstrates the changing nature of functions in library design and also changes in technology and in books themselves. We see the results of trying to discourage those things that endanger books: fire, insects, mold (or, in this book, mould), and theft. We are told that in the beautiful 18th-century libraries at Mafra and Coimbra, both in Portugal, colonies of tiny bats are used to feed on book-destructive beetles. “The only downside is that the bats leave droppings … that need to be cleaned up every morning.” Electronic surveillance systems now play the role once played by locking books away and chaining them to desks. And “damp Alexandria was one of the worst places in Egypt to choose as the site of a great library.”

Mafra Palace Library, 1771. Mafra, Portugal. Photo: © Will Pryce. From The Library, by James W.P. Campbell and Will Pryce, courtesy of the University of Chicago Press

Missing, intentionally we assume, is Seattle’s much-touted Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2004, and mentioned but not shown are any of Andrew Carnegie’s roughly two thousand American libraries in which so many of us first fell in love with books. But these omissions are petty compared with the wonders and delights that have been included. Of all these, my guess is that the author’s own favorite may be the marble-clad Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and finished in 1965. A full-page image of its interior, with the translucent marble furnishing a golden glow, introduces the 20th-century chapter, and Campbell says, “The result [of Bunshaft’s design], executed with great skill, is a space of almost unimaginable power and simplicity.”

Not sidestepped, however, is the topic that casts a shadow over this whole subject. In his preface the author asks “[W]ill this study serve merely as a memorial to a defunct building type?” The book’s final words answer that “… humankind has created an extraordinary variety of spaces in which to read, to think, to dream and to celebrate knowledge. As long as humankind continues to value these activities, it will continue to build places to house them. Whether they will involve books or will still be called libraries, only time will tell.” If indeed what we now know as the library disappears, this book will be the perfect reminder of all that we will have lost.

The Tripitaka Koreana, 1251, Haeinsa Temple, South Korea. Photo: © Will Pryce. From The Library, by James W.P. Campbell and Will Pryce, courtesy of the University of Chicago Press


John Bertram
Yuri Leving
Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design

Edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving
Print/F & W Media (July 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

Lolita— The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, 2013 (Print/F & W Media)

I suppose the impossibility of picking the perfect cover for a book that has had so many iconic covers explains the choice of the utterly nondescript text-only, lime-green one they went for. But it was a bad decision because few would pick this up on a whim.

But now that I’ve got that out of the way, Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl makes up for its surface deficiencies with its interior content (which is perhaps the diametric opposite of Lolita’s appeal). Supremely unsettling writer Mary Gaitskill for the preface? Brilliant. A chapter devoted to Nabokov in paperback and another to specifically Russian visions of Lolita? Love it. The vast spectrum of Lolita representations is impressive and yet, it was surprising to see, particularly in the covers commissioned specifically for this book, how certain tropes are returned to again and again: abstracted genitalia, rustled bedsheets, overwrought type treatments, the color pink. I have to say I prefer the older Lolita covers to the contemporary, commissioned ones. If I had to pick, I’d go with Balthus or Klimt for their unsettling confrontational portraits of young girls in far too much command of their sexual powers.

Cover design for Lolita by Barbara deWilde. From Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, courtesy of Print/F & W Media

Cover design for Lolita by Jennifer Heuer. From Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, courtesy of Print/F & W Media

Also see our Cover Story by Stephanie Murg on Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl

Mario Buatta
Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration

By Mario Buatta with Emily Evans Eerdmans
Foreword by Paige Rense
Rizzoli (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Wendy Goodman (New York magazine)

Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, by Mario Buatta with Emily Evans Eerdmans, 2013 (Rizzoli)

Like a garden at its peak, Mario Buatta’s rooms are always in full bloom, bursting with color and life. They are never static or made just to be admired. They are, as he writes (with Emily Evans Eerdmans) in his book, Mario Buatta, Fifty Years of Decoration, “living backgrounds, a reflection of where we’ve been and where we are.” In this 432-page feast, a combined catalog raisonné and memoir, not only are we privy to Mario’s childhood on Staten Island as we track the seeds of his showmanship, first nurtured by his Aunt Mary, but we also get a play-by-play behind-the-scenes look at the man who willed himself into the collective consciousness of American design by virtue of his talent and astute understanding that self-branding is key to success. Many decades of loyalty to, and from design kingmaker Paige Rense, along with other top editors, helped, but the book really illustrates that his client roster of newsmakers and celebrities including Malcolm Forbes, Barbara Walters, Mariah Carey, and Mitzi Newhouse relished rooms that felt as good as they looked.

Mario Buatta in his sample room. Photo: © George Lange. From Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, courtesy of Rizzoli

Buatta was legendarily dubbed “The Prince of Chintz” by reporter Chauncey Howell, after Howell viewed his 1984 Kips Bay Show House room, and it might be tempting to think one knows Buatta’s work. Yet his floral kingdom is full of surprises as his genius to keep the show from ever getting stale by the many iterations of playing with pattern and color goes much further than you might have thought. Buatta is as famous for his offbeat sense of humor as he is for his reputation as the foremost interpreter of English country-house style, as commercialized by John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster, and nothing serves as a better illustration for his passion than the warmth and elegance of the decoration of his own apartment in a 1929 neo-Georgian townhouse. And never let it be said that Mario has ever resisted the charms and all encompassing luxury of designing a well-appointed canopy bed. That is just one of his myriad gifts that keep his clients coming back for more.

Bedroom in former residence of Mario Buatta, New York. Photo: © Richard Champion. From Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, courtesy of Rizzoli
Jürgen Adam
Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art

By Jürgen Adam; Florian Hufnagl, ed.
ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers (September 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art, by Jürgen Adam, 2013 (ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers)

Few interior furnishings have so caught the imagination of artists as carpets of Oriental pedigree. Artistic imagination makes carpets fly. From the ancient folktale Arabian Nights to the Disney film Aladdin in which an animated flying carpet has its own human personality, the carpet possesses a potent symbolic and aesthetic power. Ironic since carpets in our everyday lives can be so easily taken for granted, intended for the un-lofty fate of being trod upon, thoroughly grounded, often created by anonymous workers in high-tech factories in developing nations. Or we can consider faux-Eastern themed carpets as inexpensive domestic wall decoration, originally inspired by artisans in some Middle Eastern or Maghreb encampment, even if commercially and cheaply plentiful because of simplistic mass-produced copies of original folk styles. Or we can see exceptional folk carpets as art fit for major global exhibition, lifting them out of their usual utilitarian context. German architect and scholar Jürgen Adam has done just that—and what a gift he has given by putting them on exhibition in Munich at the International Design Museum.

Adam has collected an magnificent range of nomadic Moroccan folk carpets over the years that are significant artworks, and has noted strong crosscurrents between their designs and those of modern Western artists, including Eileen Gray, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. The International Design Museum’s exhibition offers a ravishing counterpoint of North African vernacular textile design and Euro-American modernism culled from Adam’s collection. If the carpets don’t seem to fly in tandem with Rothko’s canvases, you may have only your earthbound perception to blame.

Boujad, wool late 20th century. Photo: Florian Schreiber, Adam Collection. From Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art by Jürgen Adam; Florian Hufnagl, ed., courtesy of ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers 

For those unable to attend the Munich exhibition that opened in September 2013 and closes in May 2014, Adam, with the help of the International Design Museum, Munich, has created an exceptional exhibition catalogue, Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art. With over 700 gloriously printed color illustrations, this hefty oversized tome sports an embossed linen cover, and a consistently insightful commentary by Adam available in German, English, and French.

For anyone unfamiliar with the evolving folk tradition of Moroccan carpets, Adam offers a clear and comprehensive overview of their design features and history. Created traditionally in wool by various tribes of nomadic rug makers to serve as mats, blankets, or shawls, these pile, knotted, or flat-woven carpets share highly abstract and freely colored designs. Their creative uses of color and abstraction attracted Le Corbusier and brought these carpets to the attention of other Western designers in the early 20th century. The Moroccan rug-making tradition continues to undergo dramatic changes in the present, substituting industrial for natural dyes, and cotton (new and recycled clothing scraps) and synthetic fabrics for wool. but the inventive abstract patterns and subtle shimmering shadings prevail as their stylistic signature.

Boujad, wool c. 1930 Photo: Florian Schreiber, Adam Collection. From Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art by Jürgen Adam; Florian Hufnagl, ed., courtesy of ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers

By juxtaposing these Moroccan carpets with Western art by Rothko, Newman, and others, Adam is doing considerably more than showing the pre-modern roots of Abstract Expressionism, valuable as that is as an exercise in neglected art history. In thoroughly analyzing the ties between Maghreb textile design and abstract Color Field art in the West, he is offering a challenge to all current Western designers to consider the following lessons to be learned or reconsidered:

• the play of gradually modulated, boldly colored abstract patterns conveys both spiritual and musical associations, simultaneously communicating the antiquity of modern style and the modernity of ancient folk style. The spiritual associations are realized in esoteric symbols found in Islamic and Jewish mysticism, and could be inspiringly appropriated in secular contexts.

• Free-form and geometric patterns exist engagingly in isolation on various planes that seem to “cross talk.” This resulted in the transformation of a practical textile integral to a nomadic lifestyle into a multi-layered visual “book” of pan-Islamic, folk-flavored cultural conversations over centuries.

• Moroccan carpet designs communicate material and spiritual energies in constant motion. Like a Kandinsky or Klee painting, these Moroccan carpets offer no final “resting place” or clear focal center among viewers in their ever-dancing patterns. This kinetic sense implicit in their designs might explain the globally prevalent archetype of the flying carpet since the carpets’ dynamic designs transcend a purely passive decorative and practical earthbound role in favor of a jumpy, visually busy, eye-catching, oscillating display.

Beni M’Guild, wool, before 1955 Photo: Florian Schreiber, Adam Collection. From Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art by Jürgen Adam; Florian Hufnagl, ed., courtesy of ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers

• Unlike digitally created designs that factor out tactic sense during the design process, hand-crafted Moroccan carpets entail constant fingertip sensitivity on the part of their artisans to fabric textures including small irregularities. Colorful abstract patterns grow out of this tactile encounter with material itself in hand for their creators.

• Adam quotes art critic Gottfried Boehm: “Carpets thus expand our understanding of imagery in an unusual way. They are pictures to look at and touch; they subvert the distinction between visible painting, tactile sculpture, and built space…” Note how the carpet’s “subversive qualities” are in synchronization with current genre-blurring and cross-disciplinary mixes happening today in industrial design, fashion, and architecture.

Whether you head to Munich or to a bookstore stocking this catalogue to catch a glimpse of this fruitful collision of ancient Maghreb carpets and modern Western art, your inner eye will be opened to hitherto bypassed design possibilities. Or you may simply savor and meditate upon flights of imagination catalyzed by abstract textile patterns. Or ponder what artists sans formal arts training can continue to teach those formally schooled.

Robert A.M. Stern (photo: Eric Van Speights © Robert A.M. Stern Architects)
David Fishman
Jacob Tilove
Paradise Planned

By Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove
The Monacelli Press (December 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member architecture commentator Witold Rybczynski (emeritus, University of Pennsylvania)

Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and and Jacob Tilove, 2013 (The Monacelli Press)

A few years ago, when I heard that Robert A. M. Stern was compiling a book about garden suburbs, I imagined that it would be an elaboration of his and John Massengale’s The Anglo-American Suburb, a slim 96-page monograph published by AD in 1981 (now hard to find—my copy is a xerox). Instead, Stern and his co-authors, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove, have produced a 1,072-page behemoth, beautifully designed by Pentagram, that is a global Baedeker to the long and interesting history of the planned suburb.

Garden suburbs—as opposed to sprawling subdivisions—are only a part of the topic, for the book also covers the garden city movement, industrial villages and company towns, and resort garden suburbs. In fact it is a comprehensive history of suburban planning between 1900 and 1940. The scope is international. Every European language has a term for “garden city”—cité jardin, gartenstadt, città giardino, cidade jardim, tuindorp, miasto-ogród—and the book documents projects all over Europe and North America, and also ranges as far as Brazil, Israel, Japan, and Australia. There is no doubt that Paradise Planned will become the prime source on the subject.

Regent’s Development, Park Village West, by John Nash (1811–32), Park Village West, London, England. Photo: Tony Murray. From Paradise Planned, courtesy of The Monacelli Press

The book is carefully researched and provides ample information about the backgrounds of scores of projects, many today forgotten, most rarely published. It shows how deeply the idea of the garden suburb was embedded in the public consciousness, and how it influenced not only garden city advocates, but architects and planners worldwide, including modernist pioneers Eliel Saarinen in Finland, Lewerentz in Sweden, Dudok in Holland, and Le Corbusier in France.

Aerial view of Marktown, Indiana, developed in 1917. Photo: David Schalliol, 2012. From Paradise Planned, courtesy of The Monacelli Press

The authors include such early prototypes as John Nash’s Blaise Hamlet and Regent’s Park, but chiefly the book confines itself to the 20th century, with World War II as the cut-off date. Stern the polemicist could not resist an epilogue, however. “The Fall and Rise of the Garden Suburb” updates us to the present-day: Seaside, New Urbanism, Poundbury, and the traditional town planning movement. It also includes Stern’s own contributions such as his seminal 1976 project, Subway Suburb, and the Disney community of Celebration. Stern and his co-authors describe the 150-year-old tradition of the garden suburb as “the core of modern city planning.” A provocative claim, but then this book can be seen as a gauntlet flung—if a 14-pound tome can be flung—in the face of modernist urban theory. “Suburbs will not go away nor should they,” Stern and company write. “Planned as part of the metropolitan city, the garden suburb is the best template yet devised to achieve a habitable earthly paradise.”

Steven Heller
Louise Fili
Shadow Type

By Steven Heller and Louise Fili
Princeton Architectural Press (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Maryland Institute College of Art)

Shadow Type, by Steven Heller and Louise Fili, 2013 (Princeton Architectural Press)

Preserved and repackaged for immediate enjoyment, this compendium of dimensional lettering is richer than a typographic fruit cake. Studded with dense chunks of visual history, Shadow Type presents examples from the early nineteenth century through the 1950s. Shadows offer a special kind of embellishment. They skirt the edges of dominant letter structures, employing bevels, highlights, side panels, and cast shadows to emphasize and underscore the primary letterform. Functioning as more than mere distraction, shadows not only give letters a decorative identity but can actually enhance their legibility and visibility. As a genre of ornamental lettering, shadow type evolved partly from the needs of sign painters. Shadows allow text to stand out against complex backgrounds—including glass—a fact that proved equally useful for mixing type with photographs and illustrations. As structural ornament, shadow letters have a natural affinity for architecture, and yet their purpose is fundamentally illusionistic. Steven Heller and Louise Fili call these shadowed letters “three-dimensional,” yet their magic lies in carving light and depth out of flat surfaces.

From Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
From Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press


Oscar Tusquets Blanca

By Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Martine Dion, Adalaïde De Savray, Jérôme Cignard, and Jean Dethier
The Vendome Press (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Staircases: The Architecture of Ascent, by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, et al., 2013 (The Vendome Press)

Designing an outstanding staircase is not a challenge for the faint of heart. It is a daunting feat, since any notable staircase design is an exercise in matching the utilitarian need to traverse building levels with a designer’s wish to invent an individualistic artistic statement, a memorable monument evoking straightforward or curvilinear “poetry in motion.”

In this stunning coffee table book, a team of erudite European writers and world-class photographers offers an affectionate tribute to grand staircases. Their spotlight lingers upon the most monumentally grandiose staircases found in European palaces and other structures associated with the rich and famous from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Generously, the book offers an expansive (if concise) global survey of staircases pre-Renaissance, including examples of stairs (designs without guard rails and defining enclosed spaces) rather than strictly staircases. And a closing chapter on contemporary staircases includes I.M. Pei’s luminously futuristic staircase at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar and Norman Foster’s swirling City Hall for the Greater London Authority emanating vertiginous grandeur. Oddly, many of the most groundbreaking examples of modern staircases are omitted—think of Peter Eisenman’s inverted and column-interrupted staircases and that surreal vernacular stair complex in Mexico, Las Pozas, created by Edward James. But what this book does with considerable charm and visual flair is offer a mesmerizing meditation upon the richness of luxurious detail in inventive European staircase design, raising staircases from a necessary building element to a major gateway catalyzing movement into architectural experiences of a rare order.

One of the cast-iron spiral staircases in the State Law Library of Iowa in Des Moines (1884) Photo: Pierre Louis. From Staircases: The Architecture of Ascent by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, et al., courtesy of The Vendome Press

The access steps to the observatory overlooking the former industrial wasteland of Lausitzer Seenland, Senftenberg, Germany, 2008, designed by the Architektur & Landschaft group. Photo: Schuetze/Rodemann. From Staircases: The Architecture of Ascent by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, et al., courtesy of The Vendome Press
Tony Brook
Adrian Shaughnessy
Type Only

Edited by Tony Brook, Claudia Klat, and Adrian Shaughnessy
Essay by Mark Sinclair
Unit Editions (August 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Maryland Institute College of Art)

Type Only, edited by Tony Brook, Claudia Klat, and Adrian Shaughnessy; essay by Mark Sinclair, 2013 (Unit Editions)

This luscious compendium of contemporary typography and lettering is stocked with enough eye candy to make your teeth hurt. It’s like a 300-page Tumblr blog blown up onto big, tactile pages of print. A selection of historical examples at the front of the book and a sturdy, well-crafted essay by Mark Sinclair provide critical context. The rest of the volume, compiled and designed by Tony Brook, proceeds alphabetically by designer. Brook makes no pretense at deep structure. In place of themes or movements or geographical relationships, you get a raucous onslaught of visual energy. Fresh, surprising, and sometimes hard to look at, the work comes from dozens of designers, most of them young and European.

Sinclair’s essay is called “The Text is the Image,” a slogan that justly captures the project’s focus. Type Only is not about long-form typography applied to complex bodies of content; it is about making pictures, mostly abstract ones, with letters and words. The book’s predominant medium is the poster. Despite the poster’s waning public function, this vehicle remains the archetypal proving ground for experimental graphic design, inviting designers to build compact compositions and serial campaigns that viewers can absorb at a glance. Themes emerge if you look for them. Communication and “concept” succumb to extravagant formal play. Letters are cut, sliced, warped, and repeated. Strange beauty emerges from ugly accidents. Digital glitches disturb the hallowed ground of print. Is the end near at last?

From Type Only, edited by Tony Brook, Claudia Klat, and Adrian Shaughnessy; essay by Mark Sinclair, courtesy of Unit Editions
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