From Sofas to Subways

Book Reviews
Design after Modernism: Furniture and Interiors 1970 - 2010 (Norton 2012). 202 pages.
By Judith Gura
A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present (Norton 2011) 208 pages
By Ann Ferebee with Jeff Byles

Fashion and interior decorating might seem a world away from the gritty realities of roads, bridges, power lines and train stations. But of course that's not the case. The seats and railings of the subway cars we ride, the look of the street lamps we walk by, are a matter of fashion, as much as a sofa or chandelier. It's one reason we call it urban design.

All this comes to mind in looking at two recents books, both by New Yorkers and both published by Norton. The first, "Design After Modernism: Furniture and Interiors 1970 — 2010," is by Judith Gura, a professor of the design history program at the New York School of Interior Design. The second, "A History Of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present," by Ann Ferebee with Jeff Byles, is an update of Ferebee's 1970 book by the same title. Many in the urban-planning world know Ferebee by her founding and stewardship of the Institute for Urban Design, where she is now director emerita. (Full disclosure: A decade ago I was an editor at the Institute.)

The two books examine similar topics, but they differ in scope. In "Design After Modernism," Gura examines the evolving styles of chairs, sofas, desks and tables over the last 40 years. Ferebee and Byles take a wider and deeper approach. They examine design back to the Victorian age in the mid-19th century, and examine furniture, buildings, appliances, typography and even photography. Despite this difference in scope, the concepts of "modern" and "modernism" are central to both books.

Ferebee and Byles begin their book by defining what is and is not modern, in their view. Gura focuses on the modernism that began a century ago, when the clean lines and revealed structure began to replace the decorated and ornamented. The facades of our furniture, our forks and our buildings were stripped of curly-cues and sometimes even color. Gura groups furniture into rough similarities of styles, such as "high tech" or "studio craft." Showing modernism's lingering power, overt decoration is still rare. Rather than decorate construction, we now have construction as decoration. The form of the thing itself is supposed to be reward enough — and it sometimes is. In Gura's book there are sofas shaped like lips or baseball mitts; chairs of folded leather, tables of spun metal and objects with riotous color and sober black and grays.

Ferebee and Byle skip through history. They explore the austere and beautiful Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and quote Augustus Pugin, a designer of the gothic House of Lords, who called it a "glass monster." They go into early telephone and bicycle design, and the architecture of Antonio Gaudi and Victor Horta, all while coming back to a definition of modernism that is about structure and function. Near the end of the book they manage to profile Apple designer Jonathan Ive and his iPhone, which in its sleekness and minimalism could have been designed a century ago by Walter Gropius or Corbusier.

Neither book can be comprehensive, of course. On balance, the Gura book is more useful as reference for interior decorating, or what is now called interior architecture. Ferebee's and Byle's is better on design as a whole, and also more interesting to read for the prose itself.

New York City and the region are engaged in some serious infrastructure projects at the moment, works that will leave their imprint on the region for decades, if not centuries. Every inch and corner of these mega-projects present possibilities and choices for expressing form and function in a unique way, from the turnstiles that passengers walk through to the appearance of the walls on the cavernous new stations. Much will depend on how many dollars are available. The new Fulton Street Transit Center shows élan in its new hub of steel and glass called the Ocular, despite numerous cutbacks from its initial design for budgetary reasons. It's too soon to tell for East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway.

Will elements of these projects will be featured in books decades from now as examples of design that are contemporary, beautiful and functionally excellent? Let us hope so.