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February 14, 2012 / Robert Ross

Mind Expansion

Contemporary Design Titles

Right before Christmas a friend of mine working for the local office of a national design magazine called to tell me the office was closing. The staff had been given leave to take the books from the library if they desired and she wanted to know if I was interested. Was I ever! Libraries of design magazines are filled with books. Some purchased for research, some sent in straight from the publisher or author in hopes of a positive mention or review that will boost sales.

In some ways, a lot of Architects never seem to progress past the age of 4. Our love of picture books is a common manifestation of this. While our friends busily scrutinized National Geographic Magazines for “pornographic” glimpses of aboriginal natives (the original “Where’s Waldo”), Architects make up the tribe more captivated by the articles featuring ruined Aztec temples or the excavations of North African Roman cities. I remember an entire summer of visiting my Grandmother and studying the images of Ramses when the Egyptians were moving the temples at Abu Simbel to make way for the Aswan Dam. I must have read that issue of the magazine a hundred times because I can still bring the images to mind. And that is the true beauty of photo books for those of us with visual memory!

Renovation Titles

Architectural books tend to be over-sized and filled with gloriously photographed buildings. We can pore over them repeatedly and still find something new. Sometimes we look at the photos for inspiration, but then there are those special instances when you find something out of place, something that may have slipped past the editor. One of my favorite finds was the green garden hose snaking out from under a hedge framing a house in a major Richard Meier monograph! It caught my eye simply be being so obviously out of place against the simple and elegant backdrop of the architecture.

The hose is under the hedge!

Still, it is in the simple act of deliberately looking at the photographs and trying to glimpse the thought process behind the design that provides me with the most pleasure. It also provides an amazing amount of information. Frequently, I ask clients to pull photographs of what they like or don’t like to help start a project. It is a very useful tool to get a sense of the client and what they like. What colors, styles, and moods do they consistently respond to. If the clients are a couple, this exercise often points out the tensions that exist in any relationship! is the new online tool for this.  While it still doesn’t have the impact of spreading photos out on a table and discerning what it is that the client responds to, it does have the benefit of allowing each half of a household the opportunity to create their own visual wish list. Many times the pictures run counter to what they verbally profess. With pictures there is little room for argument or semantic misinterpretation!

Green Titles

Little did she know at the time, but my friend unwittingly assisted me in continuing last years resolution to do more with less! In trying to find shelf space for the 4 boxes of volumes she dropped off, I was forced to confront the reality that my shelves were filled. The books sat in several piles for a month until I finally realized that I had no reason to keep the multi-volume 2004 set of Sweet’s Catalog files. For those who don’t know, Sweet’s is the architectural equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica for manufacturer’s product information. An anachronism in the age of the  internet and outdated before it was bound and mailed! The Sweets was relegated to the recycle bin. Instant shelf space and a perfect swap!

I go back to books again and again and have a broad library that has been building since  high school. The new volumes complemented my collection perfectly and actually filled a few gaps! The titles included individual retrospectives, reference type style manuals, renovation ideas and sources, stylistic anthologies and energy conservation! She even managed to include a volume on everyone’s favorite- Fallingwater.  That is something special to reconsider now that the house is celebrating it’s 75th year. I found this computerized “reconstruction” that allows us to recognize the genius of Wright’s work in a way you can’t envision in person. Definitely worth the 4 minutes of time.

I would like to personally and publicly thank my dear friend Linda for a magnificent gift and one I will treasure forever! If anyone is ever stumped for the perfect gift for an architect or designer, consider a book! They truly are the gifts that keep giving.


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