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Designers & Books

Dec 11


Portrait of Philip Johnson in the Library/Study at the Glass House

From Vitruvius to Palladio to Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier—there has always been a special and robust relationship between architects and books: reading them, writing them, collecting them, learning from them, and being inspired by them.

The publication of The Library of Philip Johnson celebrates this architect + book relationship, and provides the inspiration for this Glass House Conversation, hosted by Designers & Books, asking;

Which books have had the greatest impact on you?


Designers & Books

Whether considered anecdotally among friends, or whether argued from the scientific perspective of the design dynamics of the human brain (as Maryanne Wolf does)—books can have a life-altering impact on us. At least that would seem to be a safe assumption in the company of those of you who have chosen to participate in this chapter of the Glass House Conversation.

And if this assertion is true for the population generally, then perhaps it is even more true specifically in the design community—where there is such a deep and intimate relationship with books. Walk into any office that has anything to do with design, and what’s the first visual image that hits you? More frequently than not, we’d bet it’s of books. The reception area in Bob Stern’s office could easily be mistaken for the stacks of a college library (albeit very elegant stacks!). The full length of the wall beside Jeanne Gang’s desk is floor to ceiling books. In his new Woolworth Building office Jim Biber created a “book cube”—which allows you to be completely surrounded—womb-like—with books. And, of course, there is the library of Philip Johnson.

When you consider the intensive nature of the relationship that designers have with books— reading them, writing them, designing them, collecting them, studying them, teaching from them, and consulting them for ideas and inspiration—the idea that books could be life-altering to designers doesn’t seem far fetched at all.

On the Designers & Books website we have been privileged over the past year to hear the way in which many esteemed designers have talked about their relationship with books. Michael Sorkin describes The City in History as what made him a modernist (his copy of the book was given to him by his mother). “This book altered the way I saw life,” Karim Rashid said of The Order of Things. Outside Lies Magic was described by Deborah Berke as, “A great exhortation to all of us to be questioning observers.” Sheila Levrant de Bretteville says that Empire made it possible “for me to avoid modern dialectical thinking.”

We could go on.

We hope over the course of the next two weeks that you will join in the conversation and share the books that have been important to you—and that you will also encourage your friends to participate. If that happens—if it turns out that we end up with a long list of books that have had a great impact on a great number of lives—that would be quite a significant result to achieve. Perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, we all will have given, and received, one of the best gifts possible.

A fitting end to this note that officially begins this conversation is a quote from Maira Kalman. “Just read,” she said in the introduction to the book list she sent to Designers & Books. “That will show the way. Walk to a garden. Take a book with you, maybe a cup of coffee or tea. Just sit under a tree and read. That is the only answer to everything.”

For Designers & Books
– Steve Kroeter: Editor in Chief
– Stephanie Salomon: Managing Editor

Sunday, December 11 at 8:05pm


James Biber

Biber Architects

I became an architect because of a book. Not just any book, but the massive, and massively comprehensive, elegantly designed, Bauhaus by Hans Wingler, published in 1969 by MIT Press. This may be trite, but it’s also true. A list of some other indispensables is at Collect them all and who knows what you might become.

Sunday, December 11 at 8:08pm


Alissa Walker


When I moved to L.A. I began reading one book about Los Angeles each month to try and understand my new home. About five years in, I came upon a book by a British architectural historian named Reyner Banham. As an unapologetic booster of L.A., Banham had managed in his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies to convince other people to love L.A.—no small feat in 1971 when the book was published, as the city’s post-war gleam became scuffed by smog and social unrest. Banham not only celebrated the city unconditionally, he actually showered attention upon the things we were not supposed to appreciate—hot dog-shaped restaurants, muscle cars, freeways—transforming these supposed aesthetic hiccups into worthy subjects of architectural criticism. Banham taught me how to see my city in a completely different way.

But it was this one paragraph that really stuck with me:

“One can most properly begin by learning the local language,” writes Banham, “and the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement… the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture, cannot go with the flow of its unprecedented life. So, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.”

I remember setting down the 34-year-old book on my coffee table and looking out my window. As much as I loved Banham’s idea, I disagreed with it. The city was changing. The only way to understand it now would be to do the opposite—to get out of the car.

So I decided it right then: I would stop driving in order to see what Los Angeles could become.

That was a little over five years ago. My life has never been the same.

A Walker in LA:
Follow me at @gelatobaby

Sunday, December 11 at 8:13pm


    Wendy Goodman

    Author and Design Editor/New York magazine

    I love this question! Where do I begin!?
    The first book I really kept going back to as a kid looking through my parent’s books was The Art and Technique of Color Photography. One Andre Kertesz photograph of an entrance hall in France with a huge bouquet of flowers in a glass urn on a marble checkerboard floor, was magic to me.
    I feel in love with Diary of a Century by Jacque-Henri Lartigue the moment I first saw it and couldn’t believe the sense of fun and family and love depicted in those pages of a time totally lost.
    Then there is The Artist in His Studio by Alexander Liberman-the closest thing to going back in time.
    Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens and People photographed by Horst. I am forever trying to capture the mood and intimacy of those photographs in my design stories.
    Malaparte, A House Like Me, by William McDonough is transporting.
    Edith Wharton, any novel, especially The Age of Innocence, opened my eyes to historical interiors and made me desperate to time travel.
    The Biography of Alberto Giacometti by James Lord made me insane not have met him and have experienced being in his studio.
    Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, is maybe my favorite book of all time. The sense of street- life in London and Paris during the revolution is breathtaking, especially the passage about hunger when a wine cart topples over and the wine spills into the cobblestone streets as people try to drink it off the street.
    Then for flavors of another time and place, I love Truman Capote’s, Other Voices Other Rooms, totally haunting.
    i feel the same way about Ken Kesey’s, Sometimes a Great Notion.
    NOW I am into the final book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The 6th and final book is full of epiphanies about the meaning and creation of art for the artist. Sometimes I have to stop and reread parts that are so exquisite I wonder if I really read what I thought I had just read.

    Tuesday, December 13 at 4:24pm

Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand.

Growing up as a designer was a complicated process. I was always encouraged by my father, a difficult and complex man to some, who generally praised every little thing that either my younger brother or I produced, no matter how trivial. My brother and I were continually encouraged. It made all the difference

His support turned me to graphic design—a field which unlike architecture enables a competent practitioner to see almost everything one does actually produced. I watched and saw that architecture is full of hope and full of projects which go unbuilt for many, many reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the design involved. Costs, time, politics all working against fruition. Not so with graphic design.

I started out trying to define what graphic design was, but it kept changing as I grew up and studied with great teachers at great schools. I have tried to recover from my education.

From the very beginning, Paul Rand was my hero and even my teacher at one point at Yale. As far as I am concerned, the body of his work is beyond extraordinary. From his very beginnings until the end, he produced no bad work. Some may be a little better than others, but all his work was always simple, thoughtful, insightful, and communicative, and in his later years he shook off his early mannerisms and got even better and greater.

Paul Rand cared about art and artists. He learned from them.

Thoughts on Design I have read many times and will again. Rand was not only the best graphic designer America ever produced, but one of the few who wrote really well about what he was doing.

I had the honor and privilege of introducing him twice at his invitation when he had been asked to speak to design audiences.

Any designer to be (or in practice) should read Rand’s articulate and provocative thoughts on one of the few trades where the learning curve is continuous, ever-changing, and tuition free.

Monday, December 12 at 1:58am

The following are among the books that have had a great impact on me:

Felix Genzmer
Vom Umgang mit der Schwarzen Kunst
(About the use of the Black Art)

In German, Schwarze Kunst is what we call the art of printing.

My father gave me this book when I was about 14 and had just started playing with a little printing press. It is full of photographs of earnest men engraving letters, making matrices, casting lead type, setting lines of it in sticks, composing those into pages which are then placed in complex-looking presses. I was delighted but slightly intimidated. Genzmer also explains and illustrates the typographic system of sizes and units with their strange, romantic names like Nonpareille, Cicero or Konkordanz.

It must have started the virus that I still suffer from: Typomania. An incurable disease, but not lethal.


Heinrich von Kleist
Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden
On the gradual completion
of thoughts during speech

I tend to talk a lot, needing a conversation to make up my mind about most issues. This essay by Heinrich von Kleist – actually a letter he wrote to a friend – describes my predicament and delivers a perfect explanation for the tendency to enter a conversation with no concept whatsoever, yet to depart with a firm plan.

This piece made such an impression on me that I reprinted it in a private edition, including an English translation because none existed previously.


Mark Twain
The Awful German Language

The essay “The Awful German Language” is an appendix to Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad”. His love-hate relationship with that language developed while he lived in Berlin and Vienna in the 1890s. The essay pokes fun at the horrors of German in English, but beneath the jokes Twain can hardly hide his secret admiration for the object of his writing. It can really only be appreciated by those who have at least a passing knowledge of both languages. One famous quote is “German words are so long, they have perspective”.

I also reprinted this essay as a private edition.

Monday, December 12 at 2:09am

Sometimes a book has a great impact on us because of the overall totality of it. From beginning to end it enlightens or educates or inspires. But other times a great impact can be delivered from just an isolated part of a book, and maybe even a small part—a chapter or a page . . . or even a paragraph.

“Listen; I have long wanted to speak openly to you. There’s no need to tell you—you are conscious of it yourself—that you are not an ordinary man; you are still young—all life is before you. What are you preparing yourself for? What future is awaiting you? I mean to say—what object do you want to attain? What are you going forward to? What is in your heart? In short, who are you, what are you?”

This passage is from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, spoken by the character Madame Odintsov to Yevgeny Bazarov, a self proclaimed Nihilist—in one of the book’s many emotionally and psychologically complicated scenes. If the drama in this scene is a bit overdone (this is, after all, 19th-century Russian fiction), the call 150 years later (the book was published in 1862) suggesting a sense of a social and cultural “higher destiny” is still being sounded—for example by Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis magazine, in her December 13th posting on Designers & Books: “Exploring, Through Design, the Big Ideas and Issues of Our Time

Thursday, December 15 at 1:53am

For me, the greatest challenge for designers is to understand the human context for their work. Perhaps the books I return to most often because they have taught me the dimensions of parallax — how things look different from slightly different angles — are The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which is an exercise in three points of view and one of time and The Federalist Papers, which designed ways to counter differing perspectives.

Thursday, December 15 at 10:14am

    I liked your comment about books that address the dimensions of parallax, Ric. It reminded me of a year-long American literature class I had in college, for which the professor developed a reading list that was very thoughtfully designed—and that exposed me to a group of books that together had a big impact on me.

    The first half of the course was devoted to the 19th-century luminaries that one would expect—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc. While it was enlightening to be taught what it meant to carefully read those books, the real impact came with the second half of the course that jumped to the mid-twentieth century. The reading list for this part of the course included poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and also a book written in the New Journalism style. So the reading list had been designed to consider American literature from different time perspectives—and also from different genres.

    But it was the common sensibility of the books in the second half of the course and the way they complemented and augmented each other—under the theme of “counter-cultural literature”—that had a pretty dramatic impact on me: The Making of a Counter Culture by Roszak; Ginsberg’s Howl; Mailer’s Armies of the Night; On the Road by Kerouac; Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

    Taken together—and in some ways to me at the time they actually ended up seeming more like chapters of the same work rather than works unto themselves—those books definitely altered my way of seeing. Phil Collins once described Sargent Pepper as “a doorway into a room that none of us knew existed.” That’s pretty much how I felt about those six books.

    Monday, December 19 at 8:07pm

The book that had the greatest impact on me was “Five Architects NY”.

This is the book on Eisenman, Hejduk, Graves, Gwathmey-Siegel and Meier, with all those hand-drawn ink drawings, pastel pencil sketches and card-board models.

The book was published in 1972, after the MOMA exhibit of 1967. I received the book from my brother who was studying at Sci-Arc and bought a used copy off the street in Venice Beach. It was my Christmas present when I received it, and it was probably around 1982.

I had not even thought about studying architecture at that time. The copy I received was written in Italian, so I couldn’t read the text.

But I was fascinated with those axonometric drawings, and those purist boxy houses, including those purist boxy additions to traditional houses.

When I started architecture school in 1986, we had to practice drafting one of those Gwathmey beach houses. They still seemed pretty new then.

I have since visited the Smith House in Darien, Connecticut. It is still fastastic, even though the materials seem primitive. But I was dumbfounded by the tiny bedrooms, none of them with a view of the water, and still wonder how Meier convinced his clients to do that (and why?)

I named the book I wrote “The Harvard Five in New Canaan” partly in reference to Five Architects NY, but I suspect few have gotten my inside joke.

Saturday, December 17 at 3:39pm

Several of our conversation participants have noted that books were influential, or even crucial, to their career choices. I am particularly sensitive to references like this arising in our conversation because I recently ran across a video of Stanley Tigerman talking about how he decided to become an architect: “I was 12 years old when I read The Fountainhead (by Ayn Rand). And when I put the book down, I decided to become an architect.” In the video Tigerman goes on to explain what about the book, and which character traits of the book’s protagonist, he found appealing and inspirational. It makes interesting listening. The video is called “Stanley Tigerman“, and it was directed by Karen Carter. The reference to The Fountainhead comes at 4:49.

Sunday, December 18 at 9:10pm

For myself, the books that have had the most impact on me have rarely been books by architects, even though they do make great books. Man, Play and Games, by Roger Caillois is a fascinating book about play and the value to society. When reading this book I could not help but think of Jane McGonigal. I loved Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, a profound and important 20th century work. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle has helped me understand where we are today in this post-crash world. Charles Morris’ book, Signs, Language, and Behavior, has given me some of the foundational understanding of semiotics. A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, has helped me gain an understanding of how intertwined and complex the world is, and how difficult it is to unwind a thread of thought to a seminal thought. I am currently engrossed in Bahktin and Rabelais, and have been floored by the potentiality therein for creative compositions. Right now I am thoroughly engaged in a book about the Sex Pistols, and the Punk scene called Englands Dreaming. I will say that as an architect, the work Mask of Medusa by, and about the work of John Hejduk, has been the most profound work on architecture that I have ever come across. This work continues to challenge me, every time I pick it up, a new reading is revealed.

Wednesday, December 21 at 11:15am


Irene Shum Allen

Curator + Collections Manager, The Philip Johnson Glass House

My two earliest encounters with architecture were through books: I distinctly recall my absolute amazement and admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which I discovered while leafing through my brand new 1976 edition of “Childcraft: The How and Why Library.” With my interest piqued, I found myself in the nonfiction section for “grown ups” in the local public library where I came across a sketch and photograph of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam in a library book. (Unfortunately, I do not know or recall the title of this second book.) These two encounters profoundly impacted me: How did they do that? And, I want to do that – whatever that meant. I knew from that point on that I would pursue a career in architecture and art. What and how I would go about doing so has been ever changing and constantly evolving.

As a young adult, there were again two books by two professors who not only reaffirmed my early interest, but who also shook up, expanded, and shaped my understanding of architecture and art: Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History and Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns’ Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. I will always find the writings of Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer sexy and thought provoking.

There are other books of poetry and fiction and authors who have touched and changed me… Too many to mention, but most notably Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Dunio Elegies.”

Wednesday, December 21 at 2:13pm

Books have been an integral part of my life since I was a child growing up in a tumultuous household in Brooklyn. We lived in an old two story house and my bedroom was away from everyone in a converted sun porch. It was quiet and I escaped from everyone and everything in that room with Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. As I got older I read Neville Shute and Ray Bradbury in that space. These books and that space were the foundation of the way I feel about books and domestic space today.
As my life progressed so has my affair with books. Sartre, Camus, Steinbeck, McGuane, Kundera, Nin and Miller. Every house and every apartment that we design has a space where a quiet escape can be found.
Today the books that have great influence on me vary from Curzio Malaparte’s Kaput and anything written by Vasily Grossman to the wonderful $9.99 series of art and architecture books from Taschen.

Thursday, December 22 at 1:15pm


Selected list of words appearing in this and other conversations.