AS ONE WHOSE SHELVES are already groaning with auction catalogues and design reference books (even wrote a couple of ’em myself), I couldn’t imagine how the new, nearly-500 page tome, Design: The Definitive Visual History, would tell me anything I didn’t know. Published by DK/Penguin Random House in association with the Smithsonian, it was bound to be authoritative, but at this point, what more is there to say or show?
The book is what it says: a comprehensive history of Western design, in carefully chosen photos. It lays out, in a chronological fashion that appeals to my linear brain, the evolution of design from the mid 19th century, when industrialization and the growing demand for household furnishings and decorative wares by a new middle class first necessitated that everything be “designed,” up to the present.
From William Morris and Tiffany lamps to IKEA and cell phones is a broad purview, to be sure, and the book is of necessity a cursory look at a vast subject. It’s a highlights tour of the icons, for the most part, but if you want all your information in one place. this encyclopedic book is for you.
This is the book to reach for first if you need reminding who Achille Castiglione was and what he designed, or the difference between Art Deco and Streamlined Modern. Its clear, sparkling graphics and hundreds of images, which include many period interiors and such enjoyable extras as timelines and pithy pull quotes, make it fun just to flip through.
It also provides something often taken for granted: a definition of good design, or function meeting aesthetics at a price many can afford. At $50 (about penny a page), this book is a case in point.