February 10, 2011

Notes on design: Designer libraries, literally

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Designers are known for cultivating massive libraries—collections of books we dutifully drag from apartment to apartment, filling shelf after shelf with reference material, visual inspiration, favorite writers, and of course, all those books that caught our eyes at the bookstore and convinced us we couldn’t live without them. Now, a new project aims to document this relationship.

Designers & Books is a new site which asks designers of all stripes—fashion, print, new media, interior, industrial, and urban designers, as well as architects—to list books that have “shaped their values, their worldview, and their ideas about design.” Exploring the site provides a voyeuristic thrill familiar to anyone who’s ever snuck a peek at a new acquaintance’s bookshelves, but it also delivers insight into the minds of the people who help shape the world around us, and it’s interesting to compare the designers’ work with their reading lists.

For example, it’s unsurprising that Paula Scher, whose playful posters for the Public Theater feature dynamically angled typography, would cite books on the dadaist, futurist, and suprematist art movements as most influential to her work.  And Massimo Vignelli, who gave us the rigidly modernist signage of the New York City subway, would of course list books by and about modernist designers like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, whose visions of urbanism impacted New York’s development in the 1960s and 70s. (He also includes Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities.) But you might not expect to find the Renaissance architect Palladio in Michael Graves‘s reading list, considering the often whimsical nature of his buildings.

Others are more interesting for their comments. Of The Great GatsbyMichael Bierut writes, “in what other book does a billboard get to be a main character?” Carin Goldberg, the only book designer represented, makes this introduction to her list:

I spent many years embarrassed by my literary limitations until I became a book jacket designer and had the opportunity to read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts over the course of 15 years. It was then, albeit late, that I became a reader.

And lest you think George Lois, legendary ad man and former art director of Esquire, uses books for anything other than status symbols, he gets right to the point (as always): “I have almost 7,000 books in four libraries in my (large) Manhattan apartment.”

Finally, in case all of this doesn’t satisfy your urge for literary voyeurism, look inside the late minimalist artist and designer Donald Judd‘s library, which is housed in its own building in his complex in Marfa, Texas, and contains more than 13,000 volumes (take that, Lois). The Judd Foundation’s site allows viewers to browse the library shelf by shelf, with all the books preserved exactly as Judd arranged them himself. Look carefully and you might see some interesting surprises behind the shelves as well.

Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.

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