In the first installment of our summer series Overdue Books, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads A Field Guide to American Houses
If you visit the Architectural History best-seller list on Amazon, you will notice Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses is almost always near the top. Displaced briefly by a Bauhaus anniversary or a famous architect’s death, it always bobs up again. I’ve owned the book for years, first in its original 1984 edition, then the chunky 2015 paperback revision, but I haven’t dipped into it too often. But seeing the book beat my own sales and those of my friends week after week made me curious, not to mention jealous: Why so popular?
It only took me two chapters to figure it out. Virginia McAlester tells you exactly what you need to know about your neighborhood.
If you had the arm strength to carry the Field Guide everywhere (or bought the e-book), you could walk down any street in America and identify the style, age, and component parts of each and every home you pass. Her most enthusiastic readers are preservationists, or wannabe preservationists, trying to quantify just what it is that makes a place so different, so special. Her wider audience comprises people who simply want to know what’s going on out there, starting at their doorstep. It was slightly startling to realize how rarely I’ve considered that view in my writing—though I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the transformation of the inside of the American home.
The designer Giorgia Lupi was born in 1981 and believes that she is part of a special bridge generation. “I was raised in a completely analog environment,” she says. “I was a teen-ager when all of the awkward connection and human connection needed to be made in real life. But, at the same time, because I started to use technology as a teen-ager, I’m fluent in both worlds.” This week, Lupi joins the graphic-design firm Pentagram as the only partner who has a focus on information design. Her work, consistent with her upbringing, brings a tactile feel to computer code, and her appointment is an occasion to assess information design—a field located between graphic design and data science—and the possibilities it holds.
Sitting in Pentagram’s crisp quarters, on Park Avenue South, Lupi cuts an extremely organized figure: petite and black-clad, with a looping black necklace and round black glasses, accented by a cap of red hair. Born in Modena, Italy, and trained as an architect, Lupi had her first brush with information design while in college via an exercise in urban mapping, inspired by the planner Kevin Lynch. In his landmark book, “The Image of the City,” published in 1961, Lynch asked people to draw their city for a visitor, paying attention to their own everyday paths and major landmarks, without reference to geography. Of course, each person’s map, both in Lynch’s book and Lupi’s exercise, was different—but that did not mean that one map was more accurate than another. Rather, each person was telling a different story through cartography.
Walter Gropius has always seemed like the grayest man of the Bauhaus. Mies van der Rohe had his whiskey-colored skyscraper and book-matched marble. Marcel Breuer had his winking butterfly roofs and the cantilevered cane chairs at every architect’s dining table. Gropius’s design signifiers are much drier — flat roofs, glass corners — and have now been thoroughly absorbed into the general collection of modernist imagery. Even his one completed attempt at a signature skyscraper — Manhattan’s Pan Am tower, that prismatic doorstop straddling Park Avenue — is hard to love.
Fiona MacCarthy, the author of previous books on Lord Byron, Eric Gill and William Morris, acknowledges his image problem in her preface to “Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus.” “Not the least of the myths I have had to contend with in writing his life is the idea that Gropius was doctrinaire and boring,” she writes, laying blame for this characterization at the feet of Tom Wolfe, in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and Alma Mahler, Gropius’s first wife, in her memoirs. MacCarthy perceives Gropius a bit differently — as one might hope for a biographer. “I see him as in many ways heroic, a romantic and optimist, a great survivor,” she writes. What’s more, “Sexually Gropius was far from negligible.”
The subtitle has a double meaning. Gropius, who was born in Berlin in 1883, built both the flat-roofed, glass-cornered building that housed the Bauhaus school in Dessau and the faculty and curriculum for a modern school of design.
In January 2017 I wrote an article for Curbed about Japanese American designers and the internment camps. I had admired and written about the work of Isamu Noguchi, Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima for years, but I had never heard about their World War II incarceration, or thought about how that experience changed the trajectory of their lives. After the article was published, I felt there was more to the story. I pitched it to the producers of KCET series Artbound as the subject of a one-hour documentary, part of their ongoing exploration of California and the arts. They said yes, and recruited a directing team from the Japanese American National Museum.
Last night that episode aired on KCET, and is now available to stream online as “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience.” I was a co-producer for the episode, and I am hoping there will be a New York City screening in the near future.
From the iconic typeface of “The Godfather” book cover to Herman Miller’s Noguchi table, the influence of Japanese American artists and designers in postwar American art and design is unparalleled. While this second generation of Japanese American artists have been celebrated in various publications and exhibitions with their iconic work, less-discussed is how the World War II incarceration — a period of intense discrimination and hardship — has also had a powerful effect on the lives of artists such as Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita and Gyo Obata.
Orange, mango, strawberry, lime. If an apartment could be said to be bursting with fruit flavor it would be this three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district, renovated by Adam Nathaniel Furman, a British architectural designer, for a pair of very adventurous clients over the past two years.
Mr. Furman’s clients, a mixed Japanese-expat retired couple, who regularly host guests from abroad, had owned the 1,700 square-foot apartment since the 1980s, just after the building was completed. The existing layout was dark and self-contained, with small rooms off a long corridor and ceiling heights of under eight feet.
In March, eight exclamation points marched across the back wall of the Grand Palais at Akris’s fall 2019 ready-to-wear show in Paris, exuberant punctuation in the all-white room. Those exclamation points came from a 2006 work by the late artist Richard Artschwager and were made of horsehair, a material associated with upholstery rather than art.
In his nearly 40 years as Akris creative director, Albert Kriemler has frequently joined forces with artists. For past collections he has worked with 103-year-old modernist painter Carmen Herrera, contemporary photographer Thomas Ruff and minimalist architect Sou Fujimoto. “It’s really always based in my case on my personal experience with the artist,” Kriemler says. He works only with the artist’s approval. “You do it with the green light,” he says.
Other artist-designer collaborations that surfaced during the fall 2019 shows: Stella McCartney sent multiple looks down the Paris runway adorned with necklaces and belts made of wrapped and woven yarn by Sheila Hicks, an 84-year-old fiber artist who received a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2018. A couple of weeks earlier in New York, designers Adi Gil and Gabriel Asfour incorporated scraps of discarded paintings by their neighbor, artist Stanley Casselman, into the fall collection they showed at the Guggenheim Museum.