Once-upon-a-time design theory was considered art history’s inferior sibling – a bit of a side-subject. When in 1989 Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley opened the doors to the cubic white Design Museum at Shad Thames, it was such a revelation. Finally, the applied arts were given a platform to talk. Some years later I recall my excitement at discovering a university course in Design History that promised to dissect and analyse the subject in the context of social history and wider ideologies.
Now, design is everywhere. The Design Museum has moved to a bigger place in Kensington, the V&A’s exhibitions challenge design in all directions, whilst the Barbican is instigating dialogues between art, design, creativity, music, dance. When I first began writing, and my work took on the motor car, discussing design in the context of the automotive world was considered novel. All this has changed, and it is a great time to be involved in analysing the world of design. To reflect the trend, publishers now offer a grand choice of design books. Some can be a touch superficial; then again, a seasoned hunter will find plenty of excellent, thought-provoking, and at times beautifully-bound books to relax the festive weeks away. Here are my recent finds.
California Captured, published by Phaidon, brings together the work of the brilliant photographer Marvin Rand. Los Angeles was a kind of utopian dream in the mid-twentieth century. The sunny southern Californian city had attracted a progressive set – experimental filmmakers, independent artists, writers and patrons of design came here for it offered freedom of expression. This coupled with urban growth and industrial expansion led to a period of exceptional architectural innovation. Rand captured this spirit. Throughout the post-war period, the native Angeleno photographed the buildings of Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, John Lautner, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler. He also played a crucial role in helping shape the mid-century Californian modern style – all of which is explored in this stylish book.
Also by Phaidon, Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989, created in collaboration with Moscow Design Museum, is an account of life under Communist rule told through the design of everyday objects, graphics, illustration and advertising. The images here, selected largely from the Museum’s collection, tell the compelling story of design behind the Iron Curtain.
Modernist Design Complete is comprehensive study of last century’s progressive movement. Published by Thames & Hudson, this impressive hardback brings together most facets and scales of design under a single volume to present the vast breadth of towering and lesser-known figures within modernism. This lavishly-illustrated book reveals unexpected connections and aims to form new insights. Elsewhere by the same publisher, The Iconic House features over 100 of the world’s most important and influential residential homes designed and built since 1900. International in scope and wide-ranging in style, each has a unique approach that makes it radical for its time.
Then a trio of architectural books take on a more academic position. Le Corbusier: The Buildings, is a comprehensive survey of the work of the modernist pioneer. The features his vast body of work – the early Swiss villas, his mid-career buildings, his role as the first global architect to venture out to Argentina and Russia, his late contributions including the extensive civic plan of Chadigarh in India – an unforgettable place to visit. With an authoritative text by scholar and curator Jean-Louis Cohen, the book reveals the creative evolution and global breadth of a great practitioner, theorist and evangelist of modernist architecture.
Santiago Calatrava: Drawing, Building, Reflecting is an intimate publication in which the celebrated Spanish architect reflects on the nature of the his work’s imagination and reveals the breadth of his influences. The architect’s words and thoughts are extensively illustrated with photographs of his buildings and drawings from his private sketchbooks, work rarely seen outside his studio. Elsewhere, Kengo Kuma, Complete Works records the work of the acclaimed Japanese architect. It features Kuma’s thirty projects, including the brilliant V&A Dundee. There are personal and architectural reflections on each project alongside specially commissioned photography and detailed drawings. An essay by Kenneth Frampton frames Kuma’s work in the context of post-war Japan’s flourishing architecture scene.
Social Design is a timely book – a survey of architects and designers hoping to make a positive impact on society. Published by Lars Müller, the 27 projects featured here look at cityscape and countryside, housing, education and work, production, migration, networks and the environment. They are framed by three research studies that trace the historical roots and foundations of social design and look at today’s theoretical discourse and future trends. Projects here include Fairphone, Little Sun by Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, and Shigeru Ban’s Paper Emergency Shelters.
Radical Essex follows a similar theme. It sets out to reveal another side to the county at the edge of London that has been a victim of crude stereotyping. The book captures the raw rural beauty and the radical spirit of Essex. It features some excellent finds – the 1960s student halls at the University of Essex in Colchester, the bungalows at Silver End at Braintree, built by Francis Crittall and fitted with his famous steel frames, London Underground stations designer Charles Holden’s cottages near Maldon, and there is the brilliant white crop of International Style houses at Frinton-on-Sea.
Lastly, another relevant design book delves into the approaching age of sustainable mobility. The Current – New Wheels for the Post-Petrol Age by Gestalten takes a closer look at some of the pioneers of eco mobility, introducing a selection of the more inspired products and concepts to include vehicles with two, three or four wheels. The combination offers an interesting glimpse into what to expect from a new generation of creatives in the next decade.