Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2011

The best books offer new angles on subjects, like dramatic spotlights on stage or a clever shot on a pool table.

So a book about painting turns out to say a lot about architecture and a car maintenance manual can reveal a hidden human story. Look at Le Corbusier as a “car nut” and you get a fresh impression of his cities; study the details of the architecture firm KieranTimberlake’s walls and windows and you learn about technology.

This is an important lesson in a time when books and the business behind books are changing. The definition of what constitutes the proper subject for a book is also changing. What this new situation demands is our constant curiosity about books: we need to pick up and leaf through and note down titles and search out references.

Here are some titles that sent me off in surprising directions.

7 books
Donald Albrecht

Beaton was a schoolmate of Evelyn Waugh and hung out with Greta Garbo. He moved from the world of the 1920s Bright Young People to 1960s Carnaby Street.

Six degrees of Cecil Beaton would connect just about everyone in fashion, film, and art of the 20th century. This fresh view, published to accompany an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, looks at Beaton’s time in New York, which was halfway between London and Hollywood. The show, featuring drawings and costumes, is an important reminder that Beaton was not only a photographer of royalty, fashion, Hollywood, and the stage—he was himself a designer, creating stage sets, lighting, and costumes, notably for My Fair Lady and the film Gigi.

Christopher Boucher

A novel that takes off from the classic 1969 counterculture do-it-yourself manual “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” A mash-up of a document and a narrative: the hero’s child is a Volkswagen Beetle. “If you think raising a kid in today’s world is hard,” the jacket copy reads, “imagine how tough it would be if your child also happened to be a Volkswagen Beetle.” Picking up on Geoff Nicholson’s Still Life With Volkswagen, the story is also about the mix of spiritual and mechanical that characterizes our relationships with technology and objects. Echoing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Shop Class as Soulcraft, the theme is one designers are concerned with: how to bring life to things.

Stephen Kieran
James Timberlake
Karl Wallick

While other books have looked at the firm’s work in general and at specific buildings such as the Loblolly house, this volume explores in detail KieranTimberlake’s novel use of materials and ideas—the firm’s strength. The firm is known for such projects as the Cellophane House shown in the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum garden and its entry in MoMA’s exhibition “Home Delivery,” but also for academic and embassy buildings. Focusing on technological innovation, such as the use of OLED, but with a realistic understanding of economics, unlike many ostensibly green practitioners, KieranTimberlake offers practical and innovative solutions, applied with sensitivity and intelligence.

Michele Castagnetti

I came across this self-published volume of images of bicycles in the window of Mxyplyzyk, the New York design shop. The book wonderfully summarizes the grit of city bikes, personalized by tape and paint, wearing an urban patina of dings and scratches.

Alexander Nemerov

Written to accompany an inspired exhibition first mounted at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; currently at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and due at the Georgia Museum of Art next year, the book reveals a powerful overlooked artist, George Ault. The book and the exhibition focus on five paintings made between 1943 and 1948 depicting the crossroads community of Russell’s Corners near Woodstock, New York. Ault was a sort of darker, deeper cousin of Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth or even Edward Hopper. Poor, critically neglected, isolated, he committed suicide in 1948.

Ault’s paintings, like those of Sheeler, Demuth, and Hopper, also have a lot to teach us about architecture and space and the emotions associated with both. The space Ault painted is also cinematic, or theatrical—it could be a set for a darker, never-performed Thornton Wilder play. Nemerov sees Ault in the context of Precisionism or Neue Sachlichkeit and ambitiously uses him as a lens to look at visual thinking in America in the 1940s. The wide-ranging text is perhaps overreaching but also intriguing with its references to film noir and documentary photography.

Antonio Amado Lorenzo

All students of architecture know that Le Corbusier’s vision of the city was shaped by the automobile. Many know that he devoted time to designing a basic automobile, the “voiture minimum.” But few are aware just how obsessed the architect was with automobiles. He drove his own, and worked out a good price with a Paris dealer, explains Antonio Amado, an architect who has packed his book full of every bit of information on Le Corbusier and the car and supplied a miniature history of auto design in Europe in the twenties and thirties as well. Le Corbusier was also a car buff, posing his favorites, Voisins, in front of houses when they were photographed for architectural journals. (Developed by an aviation pioneer, an example of the Voisin this year won the top prize for collector cars at the Pebble Beach concours.) As shrewd reviewers have noted, when he spoke of a machine for living, Amado argues, it was usually an automobile Le Corbusier was thinking of.

Text by Philip Ursprung

For over a decade, the Berlin architect Jürgen Mayer H. has collected computer-generated security patterns, numbers, envelope linings, and so on. He has published a limited-edition book of them under the title Wirrwarr, a German word meaning chaos and confusion, with onomatopoetic overtones of buzz.

These would have been an appropriate submission for our Typologies class at the School of Visual Arts Design Criticism program. They are the sort of omni-present and overlooked form of design we are interested in.

The patterns serve as inspiration to his architecture, as, for example, in the facade of the Hasselt Court of Justice, completed this year in Hasselt, Belgium. Some of the images will be on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 22, 2012.

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