Allison Arieff

Writer; Editor / United States /

Allison Arieff’s Notable Books of 2013

7 books
Brenda Vale
Robert Vale

“Does architecture drive the toy or does the toy reflect the architecture of the time?” This is the question explored by the Vales’ fascinating exploration into the world of construction toys. Just like the real world, the urban/suburban divide has existed in the playroom: some building kits, like the odd boil-able, Bakelite Bayko, were distinctly suburban while others, like Bilt-E-Z, inspired component-part-exposing skyscrapers. And there’s the discovery of a toy called “Betta Bilda,” which is now an up-for-grabs name for an architecturally-inclined rapper.

The book explores everything from gender bias to class distinctions of construction toys and reading it made me wish even more that Lego would move away from promoting its meticulously directed kits and more toward less-programmed piles of bricks.

Denis Wood

I love this book just for the fact that Wood says he strips away the extraneous “map crap” (scale, orientation, street grids) to create this simultaneously dreamy and subversive document of his Boylan Heights neighborhood. Wood is interested not in intersections but what's within interstitials. His mesmerizing graphics capture barking dogs, absentee landlords, disfigured trees, and the paper route of Lester Mims. The absence of the expected doesn’t make these cartographic explorations any less informative, however. The narratives accompanying Wood’s maps tell a much deeper story of this North Carolina neighborhood than any “normal” map ever could.

Peter York
J. Abbott Miller Preface and Design

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).

John Clifford

Graphic Icons is a book that probably everyone assumed already existed but didn’t. We owe a debt of gratitude to graphic designer John Clifford for making sure it does. What a labor of love: Clifford’s reverence for the greats of the profession is apparent on every gorgeous page of the book. Sure to become required reading for any graphic design student (but also ideal for the coffee table), Graphic Icons is 240 pages of pure inspiration.

The book includes most of the designers you’d expect: Lissitsky to Lustig, Lois to Landor. But despite that sense of recognition on nearly every page it’s just amazing how fresh all the work feels. In fact, there is so much terrific visual (and written) information here that my only complaint is that the book isn’t much, much longer.

John Bertram
Yuri Leving

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.

Becky Cooper
Foreword by Adam Gopnik

To conquer her fear of the immensity of Manhattan, Becky Cooper handed out blank maps of the city to strangers (as well as notable residents like Man on Wire’s aerialist Philippe Petit and the New Yorker’s Patricia Marx) with one simple instruction: Fill it in with whatever best captures your experience of the city. The book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, is the delightful result. (I’ll admit that I kinda love the one that envisions the city as a sea of Starbucks.)

Neil Bingham

I had a conversation with the CEO of a major architectural software company recently. When I shared with him how much contemporary renderings made me miss old-fashioned architectural drawings, he agreed—but told me we were both getting old and were just being nostalgic. Hogwash. I’ll have to show him the new book 100 Years of Architectural Drawings: 1900–2000 and see if he continues to defend the often lifeless computer versions that are now the norm.

100 Years of Architectural Drawing is, to use an over-used but completely apt descriptor here, an absolute gem. It embraces the most eclectic and wildly international assortment of practitioners and projects—not just the usual suspects. So while you’ll see Schindler, Pelli, and Rodchenko, you’ll also see a stunning hydroelectric plant by Piero Portaluppi, a sort of biomorphic-meets-streamline designed cafeteria by Henri Mouette and Pierre Sziekely, and a Dubai-worthy pink ziggurat created by Henri Sauvage. Everything is good in here, much of it unfamiliar to American audiences. Looking at the red-capped rowers in Sigurd Lewerentz’s elegant gouache of a rowers and their boathouse in comparison to a recent rendering of a local landscape architecture project made me wince, the former so immersive and lovely, the latter, so sterile and unconvincing. But the book isn’t just about pretty pictures. It’s lovingly curated and intelligently researched by Neil Bingham of the Royal Academy of Arts in London (who wrote the series of five historical essays on major periods of architectural drawing that organize the book).

This book (and my review) in the end, isn’t a clarion call against a new technology (CAD, parametricism, et al.) but an inspiration, an expression of how much more is possible. 

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