4 Books to Inspire Your Inner Designer

This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about crossing the borders of space, time and media.

Fresh ways of seeing can end up joyously shared planetwide, sometimes even in eras more terrible than the spring of 2020, as these design books reveal. Readers in confinement may be able to feel swept away to Soviet hydroplane interiors, Danish doll makers’ workshops, nightclub back rooms and well-disinfected hotels.

Could we ever need more insight than we do now about how to dry our hands in washrooms while touching almost nothing? Samuel Ryde, a British photographer, pays homage to air blowers mounted near sinks that can help us, in “Hand Dryers” (Unicorn Publishing Group, $15, 80 pp.).

His text explores the evolution of the technology; inventors and corporations have been vying to improve the equipment’s wind speed since the 1920s. (Sir James Dyson, the Airblade king, provides the volume’s foreword.) In slight variations on the standard white, black or steel rectangles, the machines are “sentenced to a life of servitude,” Mr. Ryde writes. He adds that they symbolize “progress and social order” while serving as “an object of intrigue.” He chose 255 images for this pocketbook-size book, juxtaposing soullessly pristine machines with battered examples bearing scrawled love messages or out-of-order warnings.

Anyone who has traveled may feel longings for the days of unpredictable lavatory conditions at highway rest stops on many continents. People contemplating washroom renovations post-pandemic may find helpful suggestions for installing hand dryers against backdrops of beige or psychedelic tiles or wallpaper patterned with pizza slices, leopards or songbirds.

Mr. Ryde’s project evolved out of an Instagram hit, as did the pilot Bill Young’s “Hotel Carpets” (Hoxton Mini Press, $12.95, 128 pp.). Mr. Young has spent countless jetlag-fogged hours staring downward in airports and lobbies. The grids and swirls underfoot can start to look like “an art project I did in the fourth grade,” he writes. Cheerier patterns remind him of landscapes that he glimpses from cockpits: “Mount Fuji towering above the clouds,” the Thames slicing through London, “the obnoxious highways in Los Angeles” and neon Las Vegas’s contrast with “the surrounding bleak desert.”

Some geometric motifs make him think of toy robots, bats, semen, oil slicks, hamburgers and “like somebody spilled a large bowl of ramen on the floor,” he writes. Readers getting into the spirit of his photos may interpret the tufted expanses as rooster heads, trampled books, motherboards and the awful cottony flashes that laptops make just before they die. Mr. Young’s 20-something daughter Jill Young, who helped bring global social media attention to his posts, contributes an essay recalling happy childhood hours navigating pink diamonds and yellow circles in hotel corridor floor coverings.

The Soviets tried to censor rug designs, as the Russian scholars Kristina Krasnyanskaya and Alexander Semenov document in “Soviet Design: From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980” (Scheidegger & Spiess, $85, 448 pp.) The sumptuous book’s sketches and photos of objects and interiors, drawn from little-known archives, show how government-approved design parameters evolved. Overlapping polychrome circles and squares from the 1920s gave way to the postwar bombast of oversize sickle motifs and quasi-neoclassical rosettes and scrollwork. Avant-garde ideas ended up “left abandoned on the hard shoulder of Communism’s ideological highway,” the authors write.

Some trends from Western Europe and America nonetheless seeped in, and a streak of utopianism and nonconformism surfaces in 1920s proposals for teardrop-shaped single-occupancy airplanes and 1970s zigzagging bookcase prototypes that dangled from ceilings. The authors supply thumbnail biographies of influential designers and architects — the best known today are Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Some were executed for defying regime dogma, and others managed to stay in business into the 21st century. The designers’ ideas for multipurpose furniture — tables that morph into chairs and lecterns, rollout beds that tuck beneath desks — seem especially relevant in our sheltered-in-place age.

“Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890-1980,” by the curators Bobbye Tigerman and Monica Obniski (Prestel, $65, 336 pp.), is the catalog for one of the season’s most anticipated design exhibitions. (One hopes it will not be too derailed from its scheduled two-year journey to museums in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Oslo.)

The two main authors, heading a team of 18 essay contributors, note that they set out to bust stereotypes of Scandinavians primarily bringing “organicism and naturalism” to America. Early waves of Nordic-flavored products in the United States included heavily ornamented log outbuildings (one was turned into Central Park’s Swedish Cottage) and silver punch bowls trimmed in dragons modeled after Viking ship prows.

By the 1950s, Chrysler was upholstering sedan seats in textured tweedy metallics by the Finnish-born designer Marianne Strengell. American design students took classes with Ms. Strengell and other Scandinavian celebrities at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, among other institutions. But the postwar generation did not necessarily riff on Hans Wegner’s familiar blond chairs or Tapio Wirkkala’s leaf-shaped veiny trays. The jewelry maker Arline Fisch’s fellowship in Denmark inspired her to drape Egyptian faience beads from a silver filigree jellyfish. The artist Howard Smith, a Philadelphia native, resettled in Finland while designing floral textiles with bold black outlines.

And this book has one snapshot almost guaranteed to relieve lockdown anxiety for a moment; it shows President John F. Kennedy cheered up between meetings with Vietnam War advisers, when a spiky-haired plastic troll doll newly imported from Denmark was brought to the Oval Office.



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