Books March 2013

Indelible Images

Two beautiful new coffee-table books—except one isn’t really a book

In 2006, Phaidon, the renowned publisher of art and design books, issued Phaidon Design Classics, a 3,000-page, 18-pound work that intelligently catalogs and succinctly explicates 999 industrially manufactured instances of classic design, from the clothespin to the Barcelona chair. As much a consumer product as a reference guide, the compilation—three volumes, with their bold yellow covers and heavy black typeface—has become a fixture on the shelves and coffee tables of the design-besotted, and a marker of the hip and happening household.

The publisher now seeks to expand the franchise, as it were, with The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design. This innovatively designed project offers brief assessments of 500 graphic works—typefaces, logos, posters, books, advertisements, and covers of books, magazines, albums, and CDs—that have appeared since the beginning of mechanical reproduction. Although the earliest entry, a Korean anthology of Zen Buddhist texts, which was the first book printed with metal movable type, is from 1377, the vast bulk of the archive draws from the 20th century (the Esso logo, Edward Young’s Penguin book covers, Alexey Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar covers, Man Ray’s London Transport posters, Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground & Nico album cover). And Phaidon has chosen nearly as many works from the 21st century (Shepard Fairey’s Progress/Hope posters) as from the period up to 1900, which lends a faddish quality to too much of the enterprise. Still, the vivid images, selected with exceptional imagination, along with the zippy, compressed text, illuminate the works’ historical, aesthetic, and—most refreshingly—commercial significance.

But this “book” will almost certainly be coveted or criticized more for its format than for its contents. The entries, rather than being printed on bound pages, have been produced on single, 9.5-by-12.5-inch cards, with the main image on the front and explicatory text and supporting images on the reverse—all enclosed in a heavy-cardboard filing box. Accompanying dividers allow readers to arrange the entries chronologically, or by designer or category. Some design professionals may find working with individual entries on individual cards useful or at least novel; one suspects that far more readers will find that this format all but guarantees lost or damaged entries. With great intelligence and taste, the publisher has curated an invaluable archive; but in the pursuit of flexibility and invention, they have replaced what is, after all, a tried-and-true design classic—the bound book—with a somewhat cumbersome and fragile arrangement.

The handsome, durably bound, slightly squat volumes of Phaidon Design Classics are a model of sturdiness; the $235, 25-pound Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design book-in-a-box—with its stapled, pamphlet-like, but indispensable index and its assemblage of mislayable cards, housed in a crush-prone cardboard container that opens on tear-prone hinges—is a spiffy study in flimsiness. Editorially, this book is a triumph; here’s hoping that the publishers decide to issue a bound version of it.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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