Six Favorite Design Books

When I was growing up in Los Angeles I was a bookworm because I was kind of a lonely little girl, and I was able to lose myself in the fantasy world of books. My parents encouraged me to read, and I read everything I could get my hands on. As an adult, I’m still a voracious reader – and a speed reader, to boot. There’s nothing like the tactile sensation of a book’s weight in your hand and the action of turning the pages. To me, it’s a loving tribute to the written words and beautiful images that are contained within the pages of a book.

That’s why I have a hefty book collection at home – most of them design books, of course. Not only are they treasured sources of knowledge and inspiration that I turn to repeatedly, they provide an ease of use that simply is not available on the Internet or an e-reader. Unlike a novel, which you read from the first page to the last, design books are made to be flipped through. And you simply cannot flip through a hand-held device the way you can a book.

So, with that, here are my six favorite design books:

1. Judith Miller, “Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary.” Hands down, the best book on identifying styles. Filled with details, details, details. Information on materials, why something looks the way it does, juicy tidbits, the people and events influencing furniture design. This is the book I wish I had written! It’s my bible.

2. Christopher Payne (general editor), “Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Furniture.” Christopher Payne is a Brit and has the crisp and charming manner of writing that the Brits are known for. This is one of my go-to-books for quick and concise information on a particular style.

3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Luscious images of the fabulous period rooms at the Met from Jacobean to Frank Lloyd Wright.

4. Frederick Litchfield, “Illustrated History of Furniture: From the Earliest to the Present Time.” I have the 1893 edition that I printed out from Project Gutenberg, and it is fabulous! Incredibly detailed illustrations of furniture and period rooms. There are no photos, only detailed illustrations. Lots of juicy details about various designers and historical figures.

5. Mario Praz, “An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: from Pompeii to Art Nouveau.” Mostly illustrated through paintings of the period, but a great resource of entire room schemes seen through artists’ eyes.

6. Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester, “Great American Houses and Their Architectural Styles.” Beautiful photos and floor plans of some of the top examples of American architectural styles.

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What The Visitor Center Never Told Me About In Paris

I jammed a lot of tourist sites into the four days I spent a Paris but there was one extravagant site I missed that the travel bureaus never told me about – probably because they knew nothing about this unique option.

And that is to take a boat tour of Paris at night and view the stunning beauty of the 35 bridges that cross the Seine. I did get a wonderful glimpse of the bridges of Paris at night back home, though, when I acquired and flipped through the pages of “The Glow of Paris: The Bridges of Paris at Night” by Gary Zuercher.

After over-exposing a shot by accident, Zuercher discovered the beauty of the flow of lights on the bridges against the dark background of Paris at night. After this discovery he spent the next five years shooting all 35 bridges of Paris, from midnight to 2-3 a.m. when there was little traffic and few pedestrians to interfere with his work. The results are absolutely amazing.

But Zuercher went even further by researching the history of the bridges and offering a fascinating narrative of each bridge, some of which were crossed by Julius Caesar. I learned that they used to construct houses and shops on the bridges in the middle ages. Another bridge used to host a festival with acrobats, fire-eaters and musicians, even “tooth pullers.” Another bridge had a money-changing booth on one end. And another was hit by a jet fighter plane, killing four French Air Force pilots. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Over a period of five years, Zuercher took his cameras out into the Parisian night to capture stunningly evocative images of the bridges that span the Seine. Using his artistic eye and sophisticated photographic technique, he created these glorious black-and- white photographs, rich with detail and possessing a clear, luminous quality.

No one else has ever photographed all the bridges that cross the Seine in Paris in this way. We don’t see crowds of people or heavy traffic. Nothing obscures the beauty and strength of the structures, the romance and symbolism of the bridges. Shooting in black and white allows the details to shine: the architectural elements, artwork, nearby buildings, trees on the riverbanks, and starry lamps casting paths of light across the water.

He divides his time between homes in Paris and Washington, DC with his wife Dominique who is French.

I got the book just to display on my coffee table but I started reading it and couldn’t put it down. So much goo information on the bridges and Paris’s history that it is much, much more than a cocktail table book. I highly recommend this book, but don’t just put it in the living room for display but read and enjoy every page!

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Great Masters In Painting And Sculpture: Frans Hals by Gerald S. Davies

Artistic taste is forever changing and there is obviously no such thing as a balanced opinion in the arts, where personal judgment and preference are the only currencies. And so styles come and go, bodies of work pass in and out of favour. The works of JS Bach were forgotten until revived a century on by Mendelssohn. Shakespeare was once derided as dense and difficult. And a Dutch painter called Frans Hals thankfully did not witness, a century after his death, his works changing hands for next to nothing. And, since taste continues to change, it is always informative to read the critical opinions of former eras, because it might be possible that critics really did see things differently.

Published in 1904, Frans Hals by Gerald S. Davies was written more than a century on from the low point of the artist’s stature, and the better part of two and a half centuries after the painter’s death in 1666. Copiously illustrated with glossy black and white plates, the book formed part of a series called Great Masters in Painting and Sculpture. We must thus anticipate the text to be of the skimping quality we usually expect when we perhaps reluctantly open up a populist publisher’s ‘Great Artists’ series.

But this 1904 volume is beautifully written. And what really does surprise is the uncluttered, modern style of the prose. There are no great condescending or judgmental passages about the artist or his character. There is considerable fact about his life, about which in reality we know remarkably little. But above all the book contains some inspired writing on and analytical observation of the paintings, some of which, incidentally, have since been reattributed. This adds another aspect to the experience, since it illustrates how our appreciation of the arts is very much conditioned by what we think we might know about the context or source of the object.

Frans Hals, it appears, was something of a rake. He was never rich, was in fact often in debt and, more often than not, close to penniless. He spent much of his time in the pub, where he drank to excess. He married early, and the union endured, but we now next to nothing about his domestic life. And yet, the respectable gentlemen of the St. Joris Shooting Guild regularly employed him to depict the club members in all their proud finery, full face or three-quarter front, depending on how much each sitter had contributed to the funding of the project.

Gerald Davies’s text is especially successful in its identification and description of the detail in the pictures. He identifies and locates elements of the artist’s style that the casual observer would simply not see, and throughout he approaches his subject with an enthusiasm that draws the reader into the discussion and is never didactic. In several sections of the book, the author draws parallels and cites contrasts with Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, all of whom, of course, achieved significantly more fame in their lifetimes than Hals did in his. Their work, perhaps, never did go out of favour, but that of Frans Hals certainly did. Painted largely in greys and black, the paintings of Frans Hals often appear to be more puritan in spirit even than their strait-laced sitters.

But then, as Davies point out, there is a young man bearing a standard, a coloured sash, an item of still life that adds dramatic statement by introducing contrast. And, of course, there are the chuckling wenches, the singing drunks and the other low life subjects that Hals chose to paint where, with arguably unique skill and talent, he captured an instantaneous expression as if it had been photographed.

Davies also insists that the paintings of Hals need a large viewing space. For the author, close-up viewing is too revealing of a technique that often approaches complete abstraction. And here we do find a difference from today’s critical taste, where such free brushwork would be cited as evidence of an artistic strength. Davies does not criticise it, but his era preferred not to scrutinise it in search of the psychological dimension that is now so completely essential to any critical analysis of an artist’s work.

Tastes may change and artists may come in and out of favour. Frans Hals continues to be seen as one of the greatest of painters and in the intervening years much has been written about him. But great art endures because it summarises the sensibilities of its era, at least those we insist on imposing upon it. Great writing works the same way and let us continue to include in that category critical works such as this Davies book on Hals, purely on its contemporary relevance and not merely because it offers an historical perspective on the work.

Philip Spires is author of A Search for Donald Cottee is a comic tragedy about individualism.

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