Daily Features

Monographs Should Lighten Up

By Alissa Walker February 16, 2012

Guest blogger Alissa Walker—design and urbanism journalist, critic, and author—talks about why the era of coffee table books bigger than coffee tables is over. —SK

Alissa Walker

Guest blogger: Alissa Walker (Los Angeles)

Profile    Notable Books of 2011

I’ve been wrestling with a new design book. And when I say wrestling, I don't mean intellectually or existentially. I mean physically. I've been trying to read Alexander Girard, written by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee and published by AMMO. And I can't. I can't seem to hold it upright, or restrain the spine long enough to read an entire page, or flip casually between chapters. I don't have the strength.

With dimensions more akin to an appliance—16.4 x 12.1 x 2.1 inches—a whopping 672 pages and a weight of almost 15 pounds, reading this monograph is more like bench-pressing information.

I know what you're thinking: Alissa, honey, it's a coffee table book. You're supposed to read it on the coffee table. But what about when the coffee table book is larger than your actual coffee table?

Alexander Girard weighs in at 14.5 pounds.

I don't mean to shame a publisher like AMMO. I do think there is a place for these books (provided that place is steel-reinforced and appropriately insured). But these books simply do not have to be this big. AMMO seems to understand this issue, because last year it released a second version of its similarly voluminous Charley Harper monograph (which I also own all 420 pages of) as a 6 x 8-inch, $30, miniature of itself. A portable version. Of a book.

But pure size isn’t the only problem with the Girard book. This is like wading through an archival avalanche. There are too many images bound together without examination of Girard’s work that might transform it into an actual narrative. It has one essay, one timeline, and the briefest introductions to hundreds of projects. It’s impossible to find anything. In fact, there are so few page numbers I found myself counting pages into the double digits to estimate where I was within the book. In order to know more about these mysterious unmarked pages, you must cradle the book on your lap and use your toe to hold your place as you navigate your fingers to a microscopic index in the back of the book. It’s like playing Girard Twister.

Most of the problems with the Girard book have been chronicled in great detail by Alexandra Lange in her review over at Design Observer. But she brought up one very good point: “It has 2,000 photographs, and Oldham says his team created 30,000 digital files,” she writes. “Where are they now?”

I realized that's what I really craved as I lugged the book back onto the bookshelf, pausing mid-journey to rest, take a sip of Gatorade and wipe the sweat from my brow. For a self-professed Girard-obsessive, this monograph should be a huge accomplishment: The first substantial collection of images from his career, all in one place. Yet it's a tedious process to discover and enjoy them. This Girard book should not be a physical book.

The way we use monographs has changed. Just looking at the table of contents, I wanted desperately to be able to drop it into a web browser. I imagined effortlessly clicking through the projects, referencing them, sharing them, sorting them. I don't really want to flip through endless catalogue-like layouts of La Fonda del Sol matchbooks. I want to blog about them. I want to Tweet them. I want to pin my favorites to Pinterest.

I read recently in the New York Times Magazine that industrial designer Marc Newson was planning a “600-page retrospective of everything he has ever done since his first art-school pieces 27 years ago.” Everything? Even the really crappy stuff? Come on. No one needs that much Marc Newson on their coffee table.

But could you imagine all Newson’s work—the good, the bad, the embarrassing—in a searchable, indexable database that designers could actually use? Architects and designers should begin to realize that to truly serve their audiences, they don't need to produce a McMansion of a monograph, they just need a URL and a solid content management system. If designed in the right way, many more people would pay to use this resource than the handful who bought a $200 book. And they wouldn't even need to go to physical therapy afterward.

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