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.)