Design Begins at Home

By Stuart Mitchner

Most of us grow up with an innate sensitivity to architecture and design. This primal design sense no doubt comes to life as soon as your parents hang a pretty mobile above your crib. As you grow up, you’re likely to develop an attachment to familiar objects, as I did, for one example, to the curtains that can be seen in photos of the duplex my parents were renting when I was born. The curtains moved with us from home to home and when we transitioned to a bigger house after I entered seventh grade, I asked that the surviving remnants be hung in my room, even though they were starting to show their age. The colors were warm and cozy, gold and a faded red, with fi ligree and medallions and knights on horseback; it was the design equivalent of comfort food. It was also a reminder of a happy, secure childhood.

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I thought of the curtains when I saw Louis Kahn’s watercolor of a child’s room in George A. Marcus and William Whitaker’s Houses of Louis Kahn (Yale $70). Though the image had no obvious aesthetic relationship to the cozy, colorful disorder I inhabited between the ages of 12 and 19, the ambience felt right. It was less easy to connect with the amusing photograph of Lenore and Bobby Weiss lounging in their Kahn-designed house in suburban Philadelphia, Bobby with his head in Lenore’s lap, amid a dizzying array of imagery and artifacts that would make an amusing New Yorker cover or cartoon. You can see Kahn’s style in the elements of the interior design, but the overall effect is bizarre, beginning with the huge black and white Cubist fantasy of the wall overlooking the happy couple. In the adjacent text, Kahn’s daughter Sue Ann describes his response to her question “Daddy, why don’t you ever design us a house?” His reason was the feeling that his life at home never lived up to his romantic ideal of what a home was. “You don’t build a home,” she remembers him saying. “You build a house,” As the editors point out, home was an elusive concept for someone who had “three children with three different women.”


Steven Heller and Rick Landers’s Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks (Princeton Architectural Press $60), with 700 color illustrations, is among the most browsable books of the season; inside, some of the world’s leading graphic designers and illustrators in what the publisher calls the “golden age of data visualization” open their sketchbooks, revealing various idea-generating methods, “from doodles and drawings to threedimensional and digital mock-ups.”

One of the most interesting projects is Stefanie Posavec’s Writing Without Words, a series of literary infographics primarily focusing on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The effect is that of a passionately devoted reader attacking the text with an array of different colored pencils, “fire engine red for the narrator, soft blue for jazz, taupe for drugs.” The diagrammatic result has to be seen to be believed.

For younger readers, the same publisher offers Who Built That? Modern Houses ($16.95) by Didier Cornille, a designer, illustrator, and professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Le Mans. The book offers children a tour through ten of the most important houses by the greatest architects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with a brief biographical sketch of each architect, Cornille depicts the various stages of construction, paying special attention to key design innovations and signature details. The houses range from Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1931) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1939) to Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard House (1995) and Rem Koolhaas’s Bordeaux House (1998). Another new book in the same series is Who Built That? Skyscrapers, also by Didier Cornille. Subjects include Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower (1889) in Paris, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958) in New York City, and Adrian Smith’s Burj Khalifa (2010) in Dubai.

Its name notwithstanding, Princeton Architectural Press is actually located in New York, just down the street from the building at 206 E. 7th where Allen Ginsberg lived. The Press has been around for 32 years and has published everything from theory anthologies to visual portraits of remote Canadian fishing villages.Their first publication, Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome Moderne (1981), is still in print.


Princeton University’s reputation as an epicenter of architectural studies is evident in Retracing the Expanded Field (MIT $34.95), which had its genesis in a two-day symposium in April 2007 at the School of Architecture, in collaboration with the Department of Art and Archaeology. Edited by Princeton’s Spyros Papapetros and Artforum’s Julian Rose, the book revolves around critic and editor Rosalind Krauss’s seminal 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” and begins with a roundtable discussion in which Krauss responds to questions about her work and its repercussions from colleagues and members of the audience. For anyone who might feel challenged by the streams of theory and terminology in full flow here, the back and forth of a panel discussion provides a more accessible format than a formal essay. The book is generously illustrated with maps, diagrams, graphics, and photographs of sculptures, designs, and projects by Brancusi, Serra, Christo, Smithson, and Carl Andre.

For baseball fans like myself, one of the highlights of Retracing the Expanded Field is the sequence illustrating the famous “camera eye” and flawless coordination of Ted Williams in the high-speed stroboscopic photos Gjon Mili took of the young slugger, bare-chested and in shorts, showing off his swing, the essence of his art, in September of 1941, the year he batted over .400, the last player to do so.

Another early indicator of my responsiveness to design was the “expanded field” of the baseball diamond and the classic St. Louis Cardinal logo of two redbirds perched on the metaphorical branch of a slanted bat. The visual poetry in that image pleases me to this day, and so does the living architecture of Cardinal Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial waiting in the batter’s box, staring over his shoulder at the pitcher. Williams might have had the superior eye but Musial’s batting stance was the most exotic in the sport, sinuous and stylish, and dangerous. More than one sports reporter, including the great Red Barber, pictured Musial at the plate, “coiled like a cobra, ready to strike.”


Jean Paul Carlhian and Margot M. Ellis’s Americans in Paris: Foundations of America’s Architectural Gilded Age (Rizzoli $85) documents the work and history of American architecture students at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the namesake and founding location of the Beaux-Arts architectural movement. Known for demanding classwork and setting the highest standards, the École attracted students from around the world, including the United States, where students returned to design buildings that would infl uence the history of architecture in America, including the Boston Public Library of 1888–95 (Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White) and the New York Public Library of 1897–1911 (John Carrère of Carrère and Hastings).

Portraits of the New Architecture 2 (Assouline $75) introduces thirty-two architects and firms, among them David Adjaye, Asymptote, Annabelle Selldorf, Tatiana Bilbao, and Dominique Perrault. Besides Richard Schulman’s portraits and select photographs of the architects’ projects, as well as sketches and designs, the book features an introduction by former New Yorker art critic Paul Goldberger.


Although the curtains that gave a coziness to the rooms I grew up in are long gone, the “comfort food” notion is still in effect. I’m still happy to be surrounded by a lot of pleasant clutter, most of it in the form of books. And while the macrame crochet Rue de France “cat curtains” on the windows, picked by my wife when this was my son’s room, are the lacy opposite of those dusky childhood fabrics, it so happens that a real cat spends a lot of real time peering through them, and there’s nothing like the presence of a purring cat to make “a house a home.”