Editor's Choice July/August 2006

Chairs, Rag Mags, Indian Wars

What to read this month

Not since the early 1960s—when a Noguchi Akari lamp, a George Nelson platform bench, and a wooden Danish Modern salad bowl were emblems of the Tasteful and Sophisticated—has good design been so much the thing as it is in our age of Dwell magazine and that soon-to-be-ubiquitous chain boutique Design Within Reach. So this publishing feat and masterpiece of the bookmaker’s art—a gorgeous three-volume, 3,000-plus-page, eighteen-pound (!) work that catalogs and elucidates 999 industrially made objects of classic design—taps into the zeitgeist, even if its spring publication date means it may sadly fail to tap into the holiday gift market (though at $175, it’s a present only for someone you really, really like). Arranged chronologically (the first entry is a pair of Chinese scissors designed in the 1600s and still manufactured today), it embraces all manner of products, from the Spitfire fighter and the Brompton folding bicycle to computers, egg cups, and door handles (no fewer than six, including one that Wittgenstein designed). It also marries consistently zippy, exceptionally precise, artfully compressed text—which explicates each object’s historical context and aesthetic and functional significance, and often the materials and processes of its manufacture—with imaginatively selected images (about 4,000 in all), including plans, old advertisements, and vivid photographs.

Those familiar with the history of design will find the obvious, iconic stuff—Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House Ladder Back, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily, Mies’s Barcelona, Richard Neutra’s Boomerang, Harry Bertoia’s Diamond, Charles and Ray Eames’s DAR, and Hans Wegner’s “PP501” and “Y” (I’m talking chairs, which have more entries than any other product). But the anthology is at its most charming when it is at its most quirky. Its expositions on, say, packages (the Heinz ketchup bottle, the Marmite jar, the Toblerone box, the Kikkoman soy-sauce table bottle, the Kiwi shoe-polish tin) and quotidian objects (the clothes peg, the sugar dispenser, the paper clip, the toast rack, the Dixie cup, the measuring tape, the egg carton) reveal the evolution of industrial production and consumption and amount to a primer on what makes great design. Inevitably with this sort of project, one quibbles. Why, for instance, include that epitome of late-hippie clunky, Frank Gehry’s hideous Wiggle Chair, but not Heywood-Wakefield’s comfortable, affordable, and supremely stylish Dog Biscuit Chair? (The Poulsen pendant lamp they laud may be beloved by architects and designers, but, as I know from bitter experience, changing its lightbulb is an exercise of military complexity.)

The collection’s somewhat fuzzy selection criteria (the decision, for instance, to exclude garments and fashion accessories is at once understandable and inconsistent with its definition of a “design classic”), the contradictory emphasis on both the “timeless” and the “innovative,” and the mystery surrounding how, exactly, the anointed objects were chosen and who did the choosing (“a wide range of international design-world insiders” were consulted, but who were the gatekeepers?) exacerbates the carping. A worse decision, though, is the choice to devote the final volume—one-third of the anthology—to products designed since 1966, and fully half of that book to objects designed since 1982. Many of these may indeed prove enduring, but really, it’s far too soon to tell.

It’s a shame the books can’t be bought individually; I’d get the first two, which are a brilliantly curated collection of true design classics, and forget the third, which is essentially devoted either to objects from the 1970s (aesthetically, probably the ugliest era in human history) or to fads—some great, some not. Alas, the volumes are sold only in a set, with a snazzy carrying case—which I had to break to get the books out. Perhaps not design at its best. Still, great design ennobles daily life, and reading these handsome, well-made books, which illuminate hundreds of exquisitely functioning, beautiful products, is also an elevating experience.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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