By Thomas Wagner.
When compiling “100 Books All Designers Should Know” (Original title: “100 Bücher, die alle Designer kennen sollten”), René Spitz and Marcel Trauzenberg had no intention of simply creating a reading list or a gospel of must-reads. Instead, they asked 100 designers what their favourite books were.
There’s no doubt about it, reading is an education – however sceptical we may be, in this age of smartphones, Instagram and podcasts, towards the merits of thoughts and arguments, detailed observations or perhaps dreamy musings, printed with ink and paper. The daunting question remains: out of the countless books that exist, which ones should we choose? Which ones are worth reading, or even studying? It’s all very well to read as a pastime or to educate ourselves, but which books are capable of inspiring designers to do what they do? In other words: if you are a designer, what is the one book you really must know – no matter whether it is famous, obscure or publicly despised?
“100 Books All Designers Should Know” (published by avedition, Germany) promises to provide a solution. The two editors, René Spitz and Marcel Trauzenberg, make the aim of the book clear right from the start, in their preface: “This book is not a reading list. No one in their right mind would read through the books listed here one by one, devour their contents and then put them neatly back on the shelf. This book is not a bucket list or a social media challenge. Its aim is not to set a trend or generate hype. Likewise, it is not a collection of recipes. It is more like a collection of ingredients: a bouquet of different herbs to choose from, according to one’s personal taste. Whether the result is satisfying or not depends on your individual preferences, predispositions and how the content resonates with you – i.e. on each indiviual’s interpretation.”
This book is not a reading list … it’s not a bucket list or a social media challenge.René Spitz/ Marcel Trauzenberg
Personal recommendations rather than a gospel of must-reads
Conducting an academic exercise to create a gospel of must-reads for designers was as far from the editors’ intentions as it was to offer specialised lists for further reading on specific topics, or for extending your personal reading arsenal. Instead, they opted for something much smarter. To avoid presenting a dull monologue, they based this work on a whole lot of different opinions and perspectives, with the aim of opening up the reader’s mind to different approaches to design. That’s why they asked 51 female designers and 49 male designers which book particularly appeals to them, and why they would recommend it to anyone active in the field of design – or anyone aspiring to make their mark in this world.
The contributions came not only from Europe and the USA, but from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, Lebanon, Chile and Brazil. Design celebrities took part alongside newcomers, independent entrepreneurs and employed designers, covering everything from furniture, machinery and luxury goods to images, brands and digital media. Each of the hundred contributors involved in this good-humoured exercise provided a short text on their favourite book, plus a photo of their well-thumbed copy. In a design by Victor Malsy, each text and cover photo is presented on a double page, arranged alphabetically according to the name of the designer.
Learning to look outside the box
And the results: the diversity of the responses is surprising, even exciting at times, and the designers’ reasons for their choices create an inspiring panorama. Ruedi Baur values “Peters’ Synchronoptic World History” (Original: “Peters Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte”) by Arno Peters, because it allows us “to see the history of our planet in a different light”. Shikuan Chen recommends “Waste” by Brian Thill because it made him critically question what he does as a designer. Since reading this book, he asks himself: “Does the world really need another white mug, smartphone or pair of jeans?” Sarah Cords says that after reading Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Things”, she has learned something about the “writing of things” and how important it is to distance herself, “to always move away from the familiar standards and perspectives”.
For Sakia Diez, it was the auction catalogue from the collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris that triggered her “aha” moment. And while Michael Dyer commends the conciseness and precision of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”, Polina Dyer talks about her childhood and a Russian cookbook. For his part, Naoto Fukasawa recommends reading Álvaro Siza Vieira’s “The Function of Beauty”, because when it comes to the architect’s work, designing a staircase, for example, he simply gets down to it. “For him,” Fukasawa notes, “it’s not about himself and his own philosophy. It’s about intuition. That is true beauty.”
The contributions came from all over the world. Design celebrities took part alongside newcomers, independent entrepreneurs and employed designers … an inspiring panorama.Thomas Wagner
At some point, while browsing and reading, you find yourself looking out for works that are outside the mainstream – the surprising and the exotic. There’s more to discover than you ever imagined. Juli Gudehus finds “seduction, lust, trickery, orchestrations, colours, symbolism, power, order, creativity, destructiveness and much more” in “Die schönsten Sagen des Abendlandes”, a compilation of legends and folktales from the Western world. In her opinion: “All this relates to design”. A little more surprising, perhaps, is Fons Hickmann’s confession of having read and re-read with a passion Roland Barthe’s book “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments”, or Greg Lynn’s discovery when reading Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” that the story “addresses the problem of defining the use of an object and the methods for making it, from buildings to thimbles”. Eva Müller finds Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” helpful in affirming her inner artist, while Laura Preston finds strength in daily routines as described by Mason Currey in “Daily Rituals” with reference to artists: “this creative life is a marathon, not a sprint”.
100 self-portraits with a book
It’s a pity, especially with the more obscure book titles, that we only get to see the front cover with a brief bibliographical overview. It would have been nice to know more about the recommended books and their authors. The same applies to the designers: where do they live, what do they do? Since none of this information is provided, the designers’ personal reading choices take on greater significance than the books themselves. Although these provide a wide variety of ingredients, the recipes are hidden in each designer’s reasons for choosing the book. Sometimes the focus is on the relationship between reading and design in general, while at other times the choice is highly personal and based on bibliographical circumstances. In these cases, the text reveals to us something about the designer’s childhood: where and when they bought the book, or how it came to be their faithful companion for many years.
Even if it is interspersed with a number of clichés about the creative lifestyle, it is worth going on a journey of discovery in this one-volume library. Ultimately, this book of books does not constitute a gospel. Instead it opens up a multifaceted overview of what creative people love to read. Each of these 100 self-portraits with a book light-heartedly confirms: reading is indeed an education, simply because there are so many different books.
100 Bücher, die alle Designer kennen sollten
Eds. René Spitz and Marcel Trauzenberg
avedition, Stuttgart 2019, Germany
Hardcover, 212 pages, 100 images
All pictures: courtesy of the publisher.