Paul Macovsky

Editor / United States /

Paul Makovsky’s Notable Books of 2011

Just when you think interest in midcentury modern design is over, there comes along a spate of excellent design books that will make you reconsider the topic.

This year there are books offering groundbreaking new research on Edward Durell Stone, Bertrand Goldberg, and Roberto Burle Marx that have a lot of relevance for architects and designers today. And books like Jonathan Olivares’s A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit, and Jean-Louis Cohen’s Architecture in Uniform are models of design history scholarship, breaking new ground in the approach to their subject matter—whether it be the lowly office chair, a spacesuit, or design during World War II. The latest book from Maharam—a company that has been able to mine a modernist sensibility but make it completely contemporary and relevant—is also a gem, and comes complete with its own embroidered cover.

10 books
Jean-Louis Cohen

Jean-Louis Cohen is my kind of architectural historian. He does a deep dive into a neglected subject—this time modern architecture during World War II—and comes up with original perspectives on the subject. He discovers many projects that are not well known—like Dan Kiley’s courtroom for the Nuremberg trials or Salvador Dali’s take on camouflage (he was all for it). And did you know that Le Corbusier spent much of the war unsuccessfully lobbying the Vichy government for work, only to erase that period in his biographical notes written in 1945? Cohen documents some of the period’s more successful examples, like Richard Neutra’s affordable housing in San Pedro, California; and Gropius and Breuer’s low-cost Aluminum City Housing—examples that we could all learn from today. War is never pretty, and Cohen shows that World War II was a key moment (both good and bad) in the modernization of architectural theory and practice.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ve probably marveled at Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers—nicknamed the Corncobs. The architect worked on everything from a 1939 plywood chair to a futuristic hospital complete with four concrete towers (and now threatened with demolition). You’ll find some gems in this book, like the Ralph Helstein House of 1950–52, an early experiment with concrete; and the John Snyder House on Shelter Island—an aquarium on steroids. Goldberg was less successful with his furniture design, but certainly inspirational even today with his large-scale urban planning.

Wendy Kaplan Editor

Feeling depressed about design these days? Then the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same name, “California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way” (on view through June 3, 2012), will certainly cheer you up. Sure, the seeds of midcentury California modernism were sown in the years immediately preceding World War II—just think of the furniture of Kem Weber or the architecture of Rudolf Schindler—but it was really only after the war with the booming postwar economy that the new aesthetic really blossomed, a period that produced talents as Julius Shulman, the Eameses, Alvin Lustig, and Pierre Koenig. The book also digs up obscure designers like Arlene Fisch, a jewelry designer who combined silver with colorful enamels; Doyle Lane, an Los Angeles-based African American craftsman who worked mainly in ceramics; and Olga Lee, a textile designer who was married to Milo Baughman, a furniture designer who also figures prominently in the show. You’ll come away thinking, what happened to American design in the decades since?

Sophie Lovell

Only Dieter Rams can claim to have inspired so many of today’s star designers, including Naoto Fukasawa, Jasper Morrison, Sam Hecht, and Jonathan Ive. This excellent book covers the designer’s entire career and philosophy and explains why his work has come to influence anyone whose design embodies a functional simplicity. You’ll find a great visual essay that documents the designer’s house in Stuttgart, and another one on the Braun archive that verges on design porn. Apple’s own Jonathan Ive even weighs in, and describes how he came to be a fan of the designer’s work—it all started with a Braun MPZ 2 Citromatic.

Hicks Stone

During their lifetimes, both Ed Stone and Eero Saarinen graced the covers of Time magazine. History has treated Eero Saarinen well, with a number of traveling exhibitions and books appearing in recent years; Ed Stone less so. This monograph, written by Stone’s son, offers a personal and authoritative biography of this misunderstood architect who was celebrated in the mainstream press but often ridiculed in the architectural community. Hicks Stone not only details his father’s achievements but also writes honestly about the architect’s career, relationships, and struggles with alcohol. Stone had an unorthodox view of modern architecture, experimenting with decorative patterned screening and integrating the natural landscape with architecture, and was critical of the effects of automobile culture—all very topical today. Let’s hope he finally gets his due.

Company monographs usually make for a very dull read. Not so with Maharam’s monograph. As one of the premier textile companies today, Maharam leads the way in all aspects of design production and branding, and is an ideal case study in how its risk-taking design agenda has translated into a successful business. Michael Maharam, the company’s principal, provides a personal take on many of the company’s collaborators—Paul Smith (“very hands on”), Hella Jongerius (“with her, we discovered an incredible place where craft and manufacturing intersect”), and Maira Kalman (“a true wit”), just to name a few. He shares everything from his Maharam’s house font and the ads it’s created to the minimalist exhibitions it’s mounted and the functionally cool spaces it inhabits, reflecting the company’s extraordinarily high standards, which are carefully considered down to the smallest detail. Even the book cover, complete with embroidered design by Hella Jongerius, is something special, and comes in four variations.

Farès El-Dahdah
Lauro Cavalcanti
Francis Rambert

Burle Marx was one of the great modernist landscape architects of the last century, though perhaps better is the term he preferred, “painter-botanist.” He designed his landscapes like paintings—abstract with biomorphic forms, a confident use of bright colors, and a delightful musical rhythm that moves you through space. The book has great photos of his well-known projects like Copacabana Beach promenade in Rio de Janeiro but also of his lesser-known residential ones (which are even better) like the Garden of the Cavanellas Residence. Contemporary landscape designers like Gilles Clément and Patrick Blanc weigh in on his work, and his 1983 essay on landscape architecture in the city will have you thinking about designing your own tropical oasis in no time.

Nicholas de Monchaux

Who knew that the company that made Playtex bras and girdles was also responsible for one of the most famous outfits in history—the Apollo spacesuit that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore on the moon in 1969. Nicholas de Monchaux recounts the history and analyzes the suit, peeling back its layers—not only revealing what the astronauts wore but also providing a new interpretation of the history of space flight and the Space Race. It’s a model of design history, exploring a designed object—the spacesuit—through many different strata.

Olivares took a boring topic—office chairs—and after four years of research produced a monograph that will have you wanting to redesign the chair you’re sitting in. With an almost scientific rigor, he includes over 400 illustrations of details of chairs, some by famous designers like Marcel Breuer and the Eameses, to one-hit wonders like Fred Scott’s Supporto chair for Hille, and a short but insightful essay on the evolution of the chair. A model for anyone looking for an approach to the history and taxonomy of a product.

Lois Weinthal

If you are looking for good books on interior design theory, the pickings are quite slim. Lois Weinthal’s massive 648-page reader redresses this with a carefully curated collection of 48 essays, with texts by Wim Wenders, Le Corbusier, Beatriz Colomina, and (my favorite) Juhani Pallasmaa. While there is an almost too heavy reliance on essays from the field of architecture (and you can’t really blame Weinthal for that), she divides the book into eight chapters, pulling from many fields: fashion, philosophy, film, and art.

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