6 Design Books That Celebrate a World of Artifacts

This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about expanding the possibilities of your home.

Artisans and designers, including Japanese temple builders, female silversmiths and African-American midcentury modernists, are rescued from obscurity (or simply appreciated from afar) in six insightful new books.

More than 1,000 lustrous Victorian vessels appear in “Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850-1915” (Yale University Press, $300, 972 pp.), the catalog for a traveling exhibition opening this fall at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan and already online. Dozens of scholars contributed essays about ceramics makers, from central England’s venerable Wedgwood to Manhattan’s forgotten James Carr. The companies flooded international markets with wares known under the umbrella term “majolica.” The designs were as majestic as fountains and fireplaces covered in dragons, and as endearingly frivolous as boots for holding toothpicks and jugs portraying baseball players. The authors have tracked down urban and rural brick-walled ghosts of long-shuttered factories. The three-volume book also pays homage to reformers who campaigned for legislation to protect laborers, including children, exposed to toxic metallic ingredients needed to induce bright colors.

In “Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte” (Birkhäuser, $54, 288 pp.), the catalog for an exhibition through Oct. 3 at MAK Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, 10 scholars celebrate nearly 200 unsung female contributors to the Viennese workshop’s chaotic run. From the Wiener Werkstätte’s founding in 1903 through its 1932 demise in bankruptcy, women worked in every material offered in its experimental luxuries. They often focused on areas traditionally associated with their sex, such as textiles, ceramics, couture, jewelry and toys. But there’s little trace of stereotypical femininity in Hilda Jesser’s stocky-legged cabinets inlaid in grid and plaid patterns, Hedwig Schmidl’s hunched panther made of black pearwood and Emilie Simandl’s architectural reliefs in sawtooth motifs. A heartbreaking number of the women profiled in the book ended up murdered by Nazis, or managed to flee abroad in wartime but never regained their professional footing, or had fates that researchers cannot yet trace.

“Paul R. Williams” (Angel City Press, $60, 208 pp.), by Marc Appleton, Stephen Gee and Bret Parsons, explores how racism shaped the career trajectory of Mr. Williams, one of the mid-20th century’s best-known Black architects. The author team, based in Southern California, reproduces photos of Mr. Williams’s projects published between the 1920s and ’50s in The Architectural Digest (yes, its title then had a “The”). He was orphaned as a toddler, attended numerous schools sporadically and often heard that Black men had little chance in architecture. His Los Angeles office eventually designed thousands of buildings and interiors for homeowners, corporations, institutions, government agencies and religious groups. The Architectural Digest documented his evolution from Tudorbethan crenellations to modernist swoops. When some new clients arrived and realized he was Black, he once recalled, “I could see them freeze.” Customers as prominent as Frank Sinatra, with fortunes from entertainment and oil, divorced again and again while commissioning architectural extravagances and whimsy (gossip is one of this book’s many fortes). Mr. Williams’s team inlaid zodiac signs in a swimming pool’s mosaic floor, and enclosed a dining area with a checkerboard of two-tone shutters. The book gives a vivid sense of how new money staked out California turf with guidance from a versatile architect, an outsider himself in his profession.

Mr. Williams also wrote how-to books about home design, which Kristina Wilson, an art history professor at Clark University, closely analyzes in “Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design” (Princeton University Press, $39.95, 254 pp.). She quotes his advice on laying out floor plans “so that one may move freely from one room to another.,” contrasting his approach with more restrictive and rectilinear suggestions from tastemakers like George Nelson. And she points out how many midcentury furnishings and magazine advertisements used demeaning images of women and people of color. (A particularly horrifying example is a 1952 ceramic martini pitcher depicting a Black lawn jockey.) The book highlights undeservedly obscure Black designers as well: Perry Fuller streamlined fiberglass cars and made reproductions of African masks, and Add Bates described goals for his modernist furniture as “helping people to break with the past and throw off old ideas.”

Destructive household habits can be easy to break, as the British writer Sally Coulthard points out in “50 Ways to Help Save the Bees” (The Countryman Press, $14.95, 128 pp.). Just doing nothing can do good; bees thrive in “all the ‘untidy’ areas” of backyard thickets and leaf litter, she writes. From any laptop, bee preservationists can order local farms’ honey and email government officials about pollinator protection policies. Low-maintenance plants, like sedum, ivy and dandelions, can sustain bees even from window boxes. For readers eager for more intensive handicraft assignments, Ms. Coulthard gives instructions for making bee hideaways out of plastic bottles and ceramic mugs.

“When Practice Becomes Form: Carpentry Tools from Japan” (Japan Society, free download, 34 pp.) is the season’s most powerful ode to tactility. The catalog for an exhibition at Japan Society in Manhattan through July 11, it explains how some woodworking techniques and equipment in Japan have changed little over centuries. Carvers turn raw logs into building parts that nest like puzzle pieces, without nails. They sketch templates and measurements directly on planks, sometimes using inkpots shaped like gourds. Traditional names for the woodworks’ joints, such as “gooseneck mortise” and “two-stop tenon,” sound a little like Jazz Age cocktails or dance crazes. The catalog shows entire archways and roof overhangs assembled for the exhibition. It gives an impression of what Japan Society visitors experience: the intoxicating smell of hewn evergreen timbers, and an uplifting sense that rebuilding is possible.

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