By the editors of PhaidonPhaidon
By Nancy PlainNebraska
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.