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.
In 1880, Solomon d. Butcher, a patent-medicine salesman, trekked west with his father and brother by wagon across a sea of grass, from Illinois to the desolate frontier of the central-Nebraska plains. There, in Custer County, he quickly failed as a homesteader, as did about a third of the pioneers. But he eventually developed an obsession with photography, and spent most of the next 30-odd years roaming central and western Nebraska in a rickety wagon, where he created a sweeping, precise pictorial record of pioneer life and the settlement of the Great Plains, made up of nearly 3,500 glass-plate negatives. Butcher captured his subjects—homesteaders and ranchers—with puckish humor and clear-eyed empathy. He mostly photographed families posing in front of their corrals and sod houses with their livestock and their beloved dogs and their possessions—including, say, pump organs, stoves, birdcages, and portraits of dead children—arranged before them. Set against what Willa Cather called “the vast hardness” of the landscape, these portraits highlighted the flat expanse of the horizon and the fragility and impermanence of man’s presence in a bleak and lonely land. (After all, the population of the rural Great Plains today is less than it was a century ago, during the brief efflorescence of human settlement.)
Nancy Plain’s Light on the Prairie, an inexpensive paperback aimed primarily at young-adult readers—albeit young readers with peculiarly grown-up reading tastes and abilities—and written in a surprisingly sophisticated style, places Butcher’s work in its historical and sociological context, and provides a well-chosen sampling of his photographs. Readers with larger pocketbooks and uncluttered coffee tables can buy instead the publisher’s handsome, classic 1985 collection, Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream, by John E. Carter, which contains the amplest assemblage of Butcher’s work available between covers (and it’s still in print—God bless university presses). In his old age, Butcher, facing financial ruin, agreed to sell his collection to the Nebraska Historical Society for a mere $1,000 (the state later reneged, and paid Butcher only $600). The entire collection has been digitized and is now available on the Library of Congress’s Web site.
Still, Plain’s and Carter’s books provide the broad and necessary historical background missing from the collection on its own. Butcher’s photographs make up an unrivaled documentary record of homesteaders’ implements, wares, and housing. But these portraits of invariably worn, often broken, unfailingly stoic people also attest to the terrible cost of the effort to subdue an austere and beautiful piece of the continent. Above all, then, they are testimony to the truth Cather revealed in O Pioneers!: “The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.”