Alice Rawsthorn

Critic; Writer; Lecturer / Architecture; Fashion Design; Graphic Design; Interior Design; Product Design / United Kingdom /

10 Great Books on Product Design

The toughest thing about choosing ten great books on product design was whittling down the long list. Product design may not have as erudite or provocative a critical culture as graphics or architecture, but it is so rich and complex a subject that it has inspired some wonderful books. . . . View the complete text
10 books
Sergio Polano
Poring over the hundreds of photographs and drawings in Sergio Polano's study of the great Italian designer Achille Castiglioni of the projects that he worked on from 1938 until 2000, first with his brothers Pier Giacomo and Livio, and then on his own, is akin to walking around one of my favorite design museums, the five first-floor rooms of the lugubrious 18th-century palazzo in Milan, which served as Castiglioni’s studio for nearly 60 years and are now conserved intact as Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni. . . . View the complete text
Richard Sennett
Like Roland Barthes, Richard Sennett approaches the making of objects from a very different field, in his case as an academic, social scientist and the founding director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, who is best known for his work on the sociology of cities. In The Craftsman, he explores the changing concept of craftsmanship throughout history, from ancient Roman brickmakers, medieval guilds, Enlightenment Paris, and the Industrial Revolution, to software programmers, lab technicians, and even musicians. . . . View the complete text
Robert Grudin
From Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century Buddhist priest who killed himself rather than acquiesce to a Japanese warlord’s demand that he compromise the purity of the tea ceremony, to Pope Paul V, who orchestrated the transformation of Donato Bramante and Michelanglo’s St. Peter’s Basilica into a bombastic, over-styled “baroque barn,” Design and Truth by the American philosopher Robert Grudin names and shames the heroes and villains, respectively, of design history. . . . View the complete text
Reyner Banham
Penny Sparke Editor
My favorite design critic is the peerless Reyner Banham, who not only played an important part in the development of British pop art but also pioneered serious design writing in postwar Britain. I was tempted to choose one of his “proper” books, like Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, but plumped for a playful one, Design by Choice. It is a collection of Banham’s journalism for art, architecture, and political magazines in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including Art in America, Architectural Review, and New Society, chosen by the British design historian Penny Sparke. Design by Choice shows off not only Banham’s wryly conversational writing style but also his intellectual depth and passion for design. . . . View the complete text
Victor Papanek
Victor Papanek didn’t think much of designers—industrial designers especially. “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them,” he wrote in the opening line of Design for the Real World. “And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.” . . . View the complete text
C. J. Chivers

The Gun is one of those books whose author did not intend to write about design, but ended up doing so by happy accident, because it turned out to be inseparable from his or her chosen theme. The author of this book, C. J. Chivers, a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marines turned Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for the New York Times, set out to show how the course of history has been determined by the merits of various firearms from the Gatling Gun onward, and by the deadly Soviet assault rifle, the AK-47, in particular.

In doing so, he produced one of the best books on product design I have ever read. As well as depicting the picaresque characters—the chancers, desperados, and crooks—who have invented guns through the centuries, Chivers unpacks the mythology of the AK-47’s “invention” in the 1940s by the wounded Soviet tank sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov. He also delivers an adroit analysis of “good” design in the AK-47, and “bad” in its flawed U.S. equivalent, the Colt M-16.

Irma Boom
This is one of my favorite examples of a book as an extraordinary object. It is the first book on the work of the brilliant Dutch book designer Irma Boom. There are 704 pages bound into a tiny book—just 2 inches high, 1.5 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. When I first saw it, I presumed that the (lack of) size was a wry commentary on any or all of the following: a) the trend to produce very big, very blingy, often badly designed books; b) the realization that, since the microchip’s invention, the size of an object no longer necessarily bears any relation to its power; or c) the threat posed by the iPad, Kindle, and other electronic readers to the traditional books that Irma Boom has designed so beautifully. . . . View the complete text
Roland Barthes
Still a darling of critical theorists, the French academic Roland Barthes was the subject of glowing essays in recent issues of both Artforum and Frieze. He was one of the most elegant and perceptive writers on late 20th-century product design or, more precisely, on the way in which we endlessly reinterpret the perceived meaning of objects. Mythologies is a collection of Barthes’s essays published first in 1957, and again in a new edition in 1970. . . . View the complete text
Christien Meindertsma
The problem with most conceptual design projects is that they’re more convincing in theory than practice. Pig 05049 is an inspired—and inspiring—exception, as a very rare example of a conceptual design in which the theoretical message is eloquently expressed by an end result, which also happens to be a fully functional product.   . . . View the complete text
This book begins with a slightly battered photograph of a rumpled Jean Prouvé drawing an outline with chalk on a blackboard. The next page shows a section of one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Cars, and the page after that what looks like Arabic calligraphy but turns out to be a visual record of the movement of the tip of a bird’s wing in flight. Each page bears a single image and among them are photographs of a matador, one of Charles and Ray Eames’s plywood leg splints, fishermen’s huts in the English seaside town of Hastings, an Yves Klein painting, a dust pan, the Piaggio scooter factory, and lots of chairs. . . . View the complete text
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