Alissa Walker

Writer / United States /

Alissa Walker’s Notable Books of 2013

4 books
Sylvia Lavin Editor
Kimberli Meyer Editor

“Tip the world on its side,” Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly said, “and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Maybe he was talking about L.A.’s buildings, which at first glimpse seem haphazardly scattered across Southern California’s famously chaotic urban landscape. But I take it to mean L.A.’s residents: the dreamers, the punks, the weirdos, the outsiders, the nuts, the freaks, the geeks, who are the subjects of this appropriately named exhibition and its appropriately sprawling, rollicking catalogue.

The show, which took up residence in the Schindler House this past summer as part of the MAK Center’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., examines the intersection of two nascent, experimental, and eventually influential scenes, as L.A.’s contemporary art and contemporary architecture worlds grew up together during the 1970s. As the two movements matured, they became intertwined in a sort of infinite cultural feedback loop, with architects like Frank Gehry, Craig Hodgetts, and Thom Mayne working alongside artists like Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, and Larry Bell, exploring new technologies together (this period saw the birth of the personal computer, after all) and employing an increasingly DIY aesthetic. The visionary curator and writer Sylvia Lavin spent years uncovering a vast trove of works to support this thesis, and after a few contextual essays, the book presents these works intelligently organized but largely unadulterated, thanks to the smart design of Roman Jaster and Colleen Corcoran.

While the entire book is an indulgent visual treat (worth getting for Archigram’s wacky collages alone), the most compelling section is “Works on Paper,” where for 172 pages the designers simply reproduced a jaw-dropping collection of untreated ephemera from the period: personal letters from Denise Scott Brown, notes and drawings by Judy Chicago as she dreamed up The Dinner Party, a children’s book about housing by Victor Gruen’s studio—all of which give the reader the same sense of discovery one imagines Lavin might have had combing some dusty basement archives. Throughout the catalogue, but here especially, the personalities of the projects emerge and you begin piece together the importance of this moment as well as the uniqueness of its artists and designers. They all landed here, and L.A. is so very lucky that they did.

Not many design books strive to trace the origins of an industry that’s ubiquitous in our daily lives. But in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, Alice Rawsthorn makes one of the most persuasive cases for pinpointing the birth of design as she introduces readers to a man named Ying Zheng who ran a kingdom named Qin in 246 B.C. By standardizing the size and shape of his army’s bows and arrows, he was able to defend his empire and conquer new lands more efficiently than his fellow warrior-kings, becoming the emperor of what would eventually be the most populous country in the world: Chin

As fans of Rawsthorn know well, she’s one of the only design writers out there who can so effectively move between different types of design: high to low, 2D to 3D, microbial to global, analog to interactive. The result is what might be the first truly multidisciplinary design book. Although it devotes plenty of words to the heavy hitters—Wedgwood, Thonet, Braun, and Apple serve as the “Big Four”—Hello World also takes some surprising and thought-provoking detours from the typical design canon, from the menacing graphics of pirate flags to the carbon fiber legs of amputee actor and artist Aimee Mullins.

While Rawsthorn’s narration of design stories through the ages is entertaining and eloquent (one can never hear enough about the development of the London and New York subway maps), much of it will not be new to avid readers of her column in the International Herald Tribune. Rawsthorn’s voice is most evocative when grappling with the issues of a changing discipline, such as when it addresses the new role of technology and data in cities, or discusses the role of strategic thinking in design, or when the writer is championing entrepreneurial, socially focused activists like Project H's Emily Pilloton. And she’s at her very best when examining the complicated ethics of the humanitarian design projects One Laptop Per Child or the Play Pump.

Rawsthorn tackles a daunting task, to map out design’s cultural impact, in a compelling and often very entertaining way. Yet due to the rapid transformation of design, which she argues has evolved from standardization in ancient China to customization and—with the advent of self-publishing and 3D printing—personalization, it feels as if she’ll soon have enough material to write another book about what happens when the tools of design are placed into everyone’s hands. Now that she’s ably covered the history of the industry with this book, I very much hope that she writes that sequel.

Steve Portigal

In speaking with designers I know, the idea of interviewing users often falls to the wayside. Not that they don’t think they should do it, but they often feel that they’re not the best people to do it—that unearthing substantial findings is best left to someone else, maybe the project’s writer, or some separate research department, or an outside consulting firm that crunches and delivers the data on a silver platter. This book by the insightful writer and ethnographer Steve Portigal not only proves that interviewing should be a keystone of design work, it also makes a case for how and why designers should be carving out the time to do this work themselves.

Using a conversational tone peppered with plenty of notes from the field, Portigal passes on excellent advice for conducting the kinds of interviews that will elicit groundbreaking insights. There are practical checklists about nearly every aspect of the process, from how to show images, to being aware of body language, to notetaking and recording interviews (even this jaded reporter learned a few tips). Other writers and researchers contribute essays, and there’s also a vast online component, which includes Creative Commons-licensed images and forms that can be downloaded and adapted by the reader.

Portigal uses lots of real-life examples from his own research projects, including an incredibly powerful story about gaining the trust of a suspicious family that is not keen on being interviewed. But perhaps the best examples come from far outside the creative world, pulling quite creative asking and listening techniques from different industries—I particularly enjoyed reading about Portigal’s own experiences in improv theater.

As I was reading I realized that I could see many of Portigal’s ideas applied beyond just interviewing users—I immediately thought about interviewing clients to get them to open up about their product, or interviewing team members to learn how they work. And maybe that’s the most important part about Portigal’s book. You’ll learn how to ask better questions, yes, but really, you’ll learn to be a better listener, which will in turn make you a better designer.

Sam Lubell
Greg Goldin
Foreword by Thom Mayne

Los Angeles's civic center might have been a Lloyd Wright masterpiece of terraced gardens. There should be a lush housing development by Richard Neutra where Dodger Stadium stands today. LAX could have been encased under a massive glass dome. These otherworldly proposals for L.A. were unearthed during three years of intensive research by architecture writers Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, who turned their findings into an exhibition, app, and this book of over 100 projects that might have changed L.A. for the better. (Of course not all the dashed ideas were good: a freeway was supposed to connect Santa Monica to Malibu—directly through the Santa Monica Bay.)

Armed with hundreds of models, sketches, and drawings, Goldin and Lubell worked with the designers at Volume, Inc. to capture the “on the boards” nature of the projects without succumbing to the bleary-eyed nostalgia of most retro-fabulous compendiums. While the book makes the case that L.A. is “always the exception,” it also admits that there’s something exceptional in the way we built up, tear down, dream big, and fail disastrously. We probably always will. In that way, Never Built Los Angeles is about a city that never was, but it’s also about the kind of city L.A. still wants to be.

comments powered by Disqus