Designing books that exploit the exotic


This article is part of our latest special report on design, on creative people finding new ways to interpret ideas from the past.


Digging deep into the history of design and the ways the past is continually reinterpreted can suggest avenues for new ideas. These five new books reveal just how much monastery offices, rose bushes tangled in ancient orchards and dreamy Art Deco landscapes have to offer to the modern imagination.

Writer and bibliophile Reid Byers delved into centuries of evolving concepts on the shelves of “The Private Library,” which on the title page of the book is captioned “Being a More or Less Compensive Essay. on the architectural and furnishing history of the Domestic Bookroom ”(Oak Knoll Press, $ 85, 540 pp.).

For the ancient Middle East, bleachers of raw planks and painted chests were used to organize cuneiform clay tablets, papyri and scrolls. Medieval and Renaissance intellectuals deterred thieves by chaining books to desks, and some Japanese scholars adapted lightweight bookcases into backpacks. As 18th-century bibliophiles around the world began to socialize amidst their collections, the bookcases Mr. Byers describes as “book envelopes” were outfitted with seats that could be unfolded or turned over to turn into stepladders.

While designers still experiment with sandblasted glass shelves and egg-shaped book racks, collectors pursue timeless goals: to maximize natural light for reading, to arrange alcoves for naps, and to make room for new purchases. The tendency of connoisseurs to criticize each other is also recurrent. Mr. Byers reports that during the first century the Roman philosopher Seneca wondered why anyone would accumulate enough volumes that “his owner could barely read all his life.”

Movable partitions that emerged in Japan about 1,300 years ago were analyzed by a team of 16 researchers for “Japanese Screens: Through a Break in the Clouds” (Abbeville, $ 175, 280 pp.). The luxurious volume, its black fabric cover stitched and embossed in gold, contains three dozen essays explaining how the silk and paper screens served to block drafts and provide privacy. By also trapping the scents, they could create “a universe both fragrant and colorful,” writes historian Torahiko Terada.

Artists used gold, silver, mica, and colored pigments to render landscapes and portraits on screens. Imagery reflects political changes – during times of openness to Western influence, processions of European traders and missionaries appeared in the landscapes. Calendar pages, poems and bird feathers have been pasted into the visual mix. Drawings can also be self-referencing in a fun way, depicting rooms divided by screens. Discoveries are still underway in the scholarly niche. In 2007, golden views of Osaka on the walls of an Austrian palace were revealed to be panels torn from a 17th-century screen, brought west by a Japanese delegation forging short-lived diplomatic relations.

Walled and terraced flower beds can give birth to beloved children’s novels, as historian Marta McDowell recounts in “Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett” (Timber Press, 25.95 $, 320 pp.). Mrs. Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden”, first published in the 1910s, is about Mary Lennox, who is recovering from trauma while tending to a walled garden on an otherwise dark estate in the Yorkshire.

The author’s actual properties were scattered from the south-east of England to the north-east of Bermuda and to the north-west of Long Island. She wrote to a table outside, amid the sorts of cascading roses and delphinium bands she has fictitious. Originally from a suburb of Manchester, England, she had grown up partly impoverished in Tennessee and had escaped two bad marriages.

From her teenage years, she supported her family by posting stories – she called herself “a pen driving machine”. The profits allowed her to buy so many plants that during a stay in Bermuda she found herself stuck in traffic amid carts of her own orders arriving from a local nursery. In 1924, while suffering from terminal cancer, Ms. Burnett wrote of the life-extending power of anticipating the changing seasons: “As long as you have a garden, you have a future.

In the mid-2000s, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre began to travel across North America in search of decadent and renaissance cinemas. The result, “Movie Theaters” (Prestel, $ 80, 304 pp.), Shows cavernous halls painted and sculpted with illusions of castles, cathedrals, plazas and jungles.

Photographers have walked through former lounge areas incongruously transformed into pharmacies, gymnasiums, warehouses and parking lots. Ventilation ducts and tree roots meander past the defunct limelight, and the ephemera of theater owners, employees, and patrons – canceled checks, empty candy boxes – mold. Short texts explain which sites, since the last visits of the photographers, have been razed or reopened. In my favorite image from the book, an enigmatic manuscript sign is displayed on a crumbling wall in a projectionist’s booth, amid machine parts: “Sometimes that engine needs help to start.

Archival treasures of mid-20th-century Australian taste makers make up a stunning monograph, “Frances Burke: Designer of Modern Textiles” (Melbourne University Publishing, $ 51.99), by historians Nanette Carter and Robyn Oswald-Jacobs .

For about six decades, starting in the 1930s, Ms. Burke prolifically produced fabrics while lecturing and publishing on how design could offer tools to “improve community life.” Based in Melbourne and working with her life partner Fabie Chamberlin, she drew inspiration from Australian flora, native artwork and marine life. She contrasted shades of lavender and chartreuse while outfitting homes for intellectuals and coal miners as well as corporate meeting rooms, resorts, maternity hospitals and cultural centers.

The book juxtaposes recent photos of fabric samples with vintage views of clients enjoying Ms. Burke’s ocher angel fish, coral stripes, and aqua stitches. The authors also document Burke’s recently remade designs, including a hot pink turtle-patterned blouse and a theater curtain filled with flaming orbs. Color, as Ms. Burke put it, was “a living, joyful thing – it vibrates”.


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