Julie Lasky

Critic; Writer; Editor / United States / Design Observer

Julie Lasky’s Notable Books of 2011

The design books that interest me most these days play havoc with disciplinary boundaries.

Among my recommended sextet, one pretends to be about industrial design but is an environmentally motivated critique of consumerism. Another purports to be about interior design while appealing to enlightenment values that are too often neglected (along with illustrations from Diderot’s Encyclopedia) in other contemporary books on the subject. A third features the work of a rock star fashion designer who is equally persuasive as a sculptor. A fourth reveals designs for informal communities that are grounded in engineering and technology. A fifth argues for uniting architecture and landscape, disciplines that may abut one another in space but are weirdly disjointed in approach. And the sixth isn’t really about design, it’s about photography. You can draw your own connections.

6 books
Thomas Thwaites

While a graduate student at the Royal College of Art, Thwaites undertook to build an electric toaster from raw materials. His account of extracting iron from rock, hand-carving a wooden mold for forming molten plastic, precipitating copper out of pools of acidic mine waste, and melting Canadian coins for their nickel manages to be both hilarious and sober. In the end, Thwaites’s toaster was a spectacular failure—a gloppy aesthetic and functional mess that cost £1187.54, or 300 times more than the £3.94 commercial model that inspired him—but it taught stinging lessons about environmental responsibility.

Cynthia Smith

In 2007, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum organized a pioneering exhibition devoted to objects and systems designed for people with limited means; that is, most of the world. Recently, it opened a sequel show in New York exploring objects and systems for urbanites—another (recently accomplished) majority and one projected to grow ever larger as people flock to cities for work and social opportunities. Design with the Other 90%: Cities is particularly concerned with innovations that ameliorate the harsh conditions of slums in the “Global South”—designs for housing, sanitation, transportation, education, and commerce. As social design grows as a discipline and is subjected to greater scrutiny to distinguish effective from merely well meaning approaches, the examples making up this catalogue should in many cases offer inspiration and hope.

Errol Morris

This collection of Morris’s Opinionator columns for the New York Times website is fascinating on multiple levels. Read it for the fresh perspective it offers on the timeless debate over photography’s value as a tool of revelation versus distortion, of consciousness-raising versus manipulation. Or read it to get into the mind of a truth seeker who has no tolerance for intellectual flabbiness or emotion-driven responses. (But don’t hang around there too long. It’s kind of scary.) If nothing else, read this book for Morris’s relentless quest to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding two Roger Fenton photos of a cannonball-littered landscape in the Crimea. You may never again make another easy assumption.

Joel Sanders

The architect Joel Sanders hopes to “usher in a new model of integrated practice…that reunites two fields of inquiry that should never have been divided.” With Groundwork, he and the landscape architect Diana Balmori accomplish on paper what they’d like other designers to attempt in the world: a demonstration of the seamless unity of nature and culture that is demanded in an age of increasing environmental threat. The authors believe that green materials and technologies provide a common medium for interdisciplinary design approaches, just as glass and steel defined the inside/outside continuity of modernism. Much of the book is made up of their examples: from a Parisian house buried among 1,200 hydroponic ferns to a sculpture park built on a former brownfield along Seattle’s waterfront to the authors’ own design for an equestrian facility that morphs into a public park, which they proposed for New York’s 2012 Olympics bid.

We lead the vast majority of our lives in the hollows of buildings, and yet most writing about interior design fails to address the customs, emotions, inventions and social connections shaped by these spaces. Shashi Caan, an architect, educator, and current president of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IDI), digs into anthropology, psychology, and philosophy to elucidate principles governing the successful design of interiors from Paleolithic times to the present. Underpinning this thoughtful volume is her belief that “the interior is not, as widely thought, the simple outfitting of a room, but, rather, the manifestation of all qualities concerning the human occupation of space.”

Andrew Bolton

Like a relic from a saint, this book companion to the astonishing 2011 Metropolitan Museum exhibition is a fragment of a much greater entity. It’s worth having anyway. McQueen’s jagged silhouettes and maniacal feather- or crustacean-encrusted pieces are inexhaustible in their visual interest, and the catalogue lets you study them at leisure, focusing on details like locks of hair sewn into dresses inspired by Jack the Ripper’s victims. Most important, you can read about the doomed enfant terrible who produced them without crowds of gawping museum-goers pressing you to hurry up.

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