Design books that contain the exotic

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


Delving deep into the history of design and reinterpreting the past over and over again can point the way to new ideas. These five new books show how much monastery desks, rose bushes in old orchards and Art Deco dreamscapes have to offer the modern imagination.

Writer and bibliophile Reid Byers researched the shelves for The Private Library through centuries of evolving concepts that subtitled the book’s title page, “Being a More or Less Compendious Disquisition on the History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the . “Carries Domestic Bookroom” (Oak Knoll Press, $ 85, 540 pp.).

For residents of the ancient Middle East, layers of rough boards and painted chests made it possible to organize cuneiform tablets, papyri, and clay scrolls. Medieval and Renaissance intellectuals deterred thieves by chaining books to lecterns, and some Japanese scholars fitted lightweight bookcases into backpacks. As eighteenth-century bibliophiles around the world began to socialize in their collections, libraries that Mr. Byers referred to as “book-wrapped” were fitted with seats that flipped or folded down to convert into stepladders.

While designers are still experimenting with sandblasted glass shelves and egg-shaped bookcases, collectors have timeless goals: maximizing natural light for reading, creating naps for naps, and making space for new purchases. There is also a recurring tendency among book connoisseurs to criticize one another. Mr. Byers reports that at some point in the first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca wondered why someone accumulated enough volumes that “his owner could barely read in his entire life.”

Movable room dividers that were created in Japan about 1,300 years ago were analyzed by a team of 16 scientists for “Japanese Screens: Through a Break in the Clouds” (Abbeville, $ 175, 280 pp.). The luxurious volume, whose black fabric cover is sewn and embossed in gold, contains three dozen essays that explain how sieve and paper sieves were used to block drafts and provide privacy. By also capturing scents, they could “create a universe that was both perfumed and colorful,” writes historian Torahiko Terada.

Artists used gold, silver, mica and color pigments to reproduce the landscapes and portraits of the screens. The imagery reflects political changes – in times of openness to Western influences, processions of European traders and missionaries emerged in the landscapes. Calendar sheets, poems and bird feathers were collaged into the visual mix. The designs can also be amusingly self-referential by depicting spaces divided by screens. Discoveries are still being made in the scientific niche. In 2007, the gilded views of Osaka on the walls of an Austrian palace turned out to be panels emerging from a 17th century screen.

Walled and terraced flower beds can sprout popular children’s literature, as historian Marta McDowell records in “Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett” (Timber Press, $ 25.95, 320 pp.). Ms. Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden, first published in the 1910s, is about Mary Lennox recovering from trauma by tending a walled garden on an otherwise gloomy Yorkshire estate.

The author’s real estate was scattered from the southeast of England to the northeast of Bermuda and the northwest of Long Island. She was writing at an open-air table amidst the kinds of cascading roses and wafts of delphinium she had invented. Born on the outskirts of Manchester, England, she grew up partially impoverished in Tennessee and escaped two bad marriages.

Even as a teenager, she supported her family by publishing stories – she called herself “a typewriter”. The profits allowed her to buy so many plants that she was stuck in traffic amid truckloads of her own orders arriving from a local nursery while visiting Bermuda. In 1924, while suffering from terminal cancer, Ms. Burnett wrote of the life-prolonging power of foreseeing the change of seasons: “As long as you have a garden, you have a future.”

In the mid-2000s, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre traveled through North America in search of cinemas in decline and rebirth. The result, “Movie Theaters” (Prestel, $ 80, 304 pages), features cave-like halls painted and sculpted with illusions of castles, cathedrals, plazas, and jungle.

The photographers roamed through former seating areas that were inappropriately converted into drugstores, fitness studios, warehouses and parking lots. Ventilation ducts and tree roots meander past fancy spotlights, and ephemera from theater owners, staff, and customers – canceled checks, empty candy boxes – lay rotten. Short texts explain which sites have been razed to the ground or reopened since the photographers last visited. In my favorite picture from the book, an enigmatic handwritten sign hangs on a crumbling wall in a demonstration booth surrounded by machine parts: “Sometimes this engine needs help to start”.

Archival finds by Australian taste makers from the mid-20th

For about six decades, beginning in the 1930s, Ms. Burke productively manufactured fabrics, lectured, and published papers on how design could provide tools for “improving community life.” Based in Melbourne and in collaboration with her partner Fabie Chamberlin, she was inspired by the Australian flora, indigenous works of art and marine life. She contrasted shades of lavender and chartreuse while decorating homes for intellectuals and miners, as well as boardrooms, resorts, maternity wards, and cultural centers.

The book juxtaposes actual photos of swatches with historical views of customers enjoying Ms. Burke’s ocher angelfish, coral stripes, and aqua dots. The authors also document newly emerged Burke creations, including a blouse patterned with pink turtles and a theater curtain full of flaming orbs. Color, as Ms. Burke put it, was “a living, happy thing – it vibrates”.


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