Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

A Bookstore Revival Channels Nostalgia for Big Box Chains

A children's section at a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.

When the final Harry Potter installment was published on July 21, 2007, bookstores across the U.S. celebrated with midnight release parties — some with booze, befitting a series whose earliest readers were now in their 20s. These parties took place at thousands of bookstores at a time that was, in retrospect, Peak Bookstore.

“That era, 1997 to 2007, was truly a sweet spot for readers,” Jenna Amatulli reminisced in HuffPost in 2017. “They watched the fandom bloom from nothing, lined up willingly outside of a physical store — oftentimes without a celebrity-sighting incentive — and read without the fear of a push-alert or Twitter spoiler.”

Turnout for the same release today would be lower, because of Amazon.com Inc., because of dying malls, because of J.K. Rowling’s support for gender essentialism — and because there are simply fewer bookstores. Between 1991 and 2011, the U.S. lost 1,000 chain bookstores. A story in The Bulwark checking in on Borders locations 10 years after its 2011 bankruptcy revealed that some had become Books-A-Million, but many more of their “medium-box” locations now sold food, furniture or clothes.

Even so, that HuffPost story, now five years old, may have played taps for the chain bookstore too soon.

Breaking the Mold

Illustration by Viktor Hachmang.

For the new Eames Institute publication Kazam! I trace the history of a chair-making machine.

It was Ray Eames, with her typical flair, who nicknamed the machine Kazam! after the sorcerer’s incantation alakazam, because it could form bent plywood “like magic.” This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The Kazam! made complex curves out of flat planes through hard work—physical, mental, electrical—as Ray and Charles Eames never gave up on the idea that plywood could bend in multiple directions to better cradle the human body and harness industrial innovation in service of value. The Kazam! and the bestselling series of chairs that were its eventual commercial offspring serve as an ideal illustration of the practical magic the Eameses and their collaborators brought to a task. Those chairs also underline the many humble handmade and hand-finished attempts required to produce the seemingly hands-free designs that have become modern pin-ups. “The problem of designing anything is in a sense the problem of designing a tool,” the Eameses wrote in 1953. To make a mass-produced molded plywood chair, then, the key was to invent the tools to create the tool.

Helen Fong, Norma Sklarek + Florence Knoll

CBS Building office by the Knoll Planning Unit (1964), photograph by Robert Damora.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I and my collaborators, producer Brandi Howell and host Cynthia Kracauer, completed the last of the five episodes of the first season of New Angle: Voice, on pioneering women of American architecture.

These episodes wander far afield, from the Googie coffee shops designed by Helen Fong, to the Mall of America executed by Norma Sklarek, to the lush CBS offices masterminded by Florence Knoll. These women had many forces arrayed against them — racism, sexism, unequal promotions and unequal pay — and yet they persisted to create sprawling icons of postwar architecture.

Please listen, subscribe and share so that we can do a second season.

Everyone Can Be Liz Taylor on Jewelry Instagram

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad.

When Sophie Fader and Simone Paasche founded their jewelry-renovation business, Spur Jewelry, in 2018, they imagined it as a concierge service where they would go to clients’ houses, spend an hour combing through their treasure boxes, and envision something new with the gems and gold. “A lot of people our age [millennials], baby boomers too, are inheriting all of this jewelry from their parents and grandparents, but the styles are outdated,” Fader told me. “Many rings are set very high off the hand, and today, with women working and having hands-on jobs,” she said, those rings catch and scratch.

Fader and Paasche had set up their own business to be hands-on, and, when the pandemic hit in early 2020, all those in-person home visits disappeared. Thanks to guidance from Fader’s mother, who works in Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology, they knew that covid was going to be more than a short-term problem. The solution, from a business perspective, was to take their process online: fifteen-minute phone appointments to look through uploaded photos, a retooled Web site, Facebook ads, FedEx. They also revamped their Instagram to show what they could do in as few frames as possible: “Before-and-afters. It seems incredibly simple,” Fader said.

Natalie de Blois: To Tell the Truth

In the second episode of New Angle: Voice, we profile Natalie de Blois (1921–2013). De Blois co-designed some of the most iconic modernist works for corporate America, all while raising four children. After leaving a significant mark on postwar Park Avenue, she transferred to SOM’s Chicago office, where she became actively involved in the feminist movement in architecture in the 1970s. Later, she finished her career as a professor at UT Austin, where she trained a future generation of architects.

As an architect, Natalie loved systems – understanding how things worked. For her, it wasn’t just about designing pretty buildings, she challenged the code and questioned the status quo.

Voices in this episode include Gabrielle Esperdy, Audrey Matlock, Carol Krinsky, Carol Ross Barney, Margaret McCurry, Peter Dixon, John Newman, Liz Watykus, Julia Murphy and Robert de Blois. Archival audio of de Blois, interviewed by Betty Blum, is from the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Architects Oral History Project.

This podcast is produced by Brandi Howell, with Alexandra Lange as editorial advisor. Special thanks to Matt Alvarez and Iowa Public Radio for their production assistance. New Angle: Voice is brought to you by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, with support from Miller Knoll and SOM.

The Shopping-Mall Legacy of a Mid-Century Sculptor

Most visitors to the North Face store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are looking for a parka. But several times a month, while working the door, manager Lucas Gustin spots people who don’t fit the brand’s usual demographic: “They are well-dressed, older,” he says. “They usually come in couples too. I’ll think to myself, OK, they are in here for the Bertoia.”

“The Bertoia” is sculptor Harry Bertoia’s largest extant U.S. work, a 70-foot-long, 16-foot-high steel screen, made of staggered golden rectangles interspersed with abstract forms resembling leaves and birds. It was specially commissioned by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for 510 Fifth Avenue’s original tenant, Manufacturers Trust. It presides over the second floor of the building, once the primary banking hall, filling the eye as you travel up the east-west escalators. When the building opened in 1954, critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted the sculpture’s “Byzantine splendor,” while critic Lewis Mumford wrote that “it humanizes these quarters,” contrasting with the building’s cool metal, marble and grids. “It suggests something frail, incomplete … and thus lovable.” (A landmarks battle in 2011 mandated the screen’s return after renovations.)

That outerwear shoppers should have access to such grandeur may seem like a liability, but Gustin insists it is no trouble. A modest blond wood plaque, located at the north end of the screen, identifies the artist. “Little kids are always running around and they don’t touch it,” he says. “It is boldly silent.”

Buildings Don't Have To Be Bird-Killers

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia.

The narrow stretch that separates Quay Tower from a thatch of bamboo and oaks in Brooklyn Bridge Park doesn’t look like much, especially in winter. Unless you’re a bird.

To a bird, the copper-colored building’s glass is a mirror, reflecting the thick grove of trees and suggesting that the wilderness continues across the road. To a bird, that can be a deadly mistake.

“You see that reflection? To a bird that looks like a tree, that is a tree, and they will go right for the tree,” says Catherine Quayle, social media director at the Wild Bird Fund.

The surprising uptake of birding as a pandemic hobby, along with social media and data collection tools like eBird and dBird, has created new visibility for bird collisions with glass, which kill as many as 1 billion birds in the U.S. per year. At the same time, a new generation of urban parks has given birds more places to roost in highly populated areas. But something else has followed these parks as well: real estate capital. The vogue for urban parks creates more economic impetus to build shiny buildings with big windows opposite those urban wetlands, glades and groves.

Architects have known how to prevent their buildings from becoming bird killers for more than a decade: Toronto was the first North American municipality to implement bird safety building guidelines back in 2010. New York City implemented some laws of its own in 2021. Patterned glass, exterior screens and turning the lights off at night can all significantly reduce bird deaths. But those standards clash with the big glass and big views that clients associate with big money.

Keep Your Damn Mask On! It’s the 2021 Architecture and Design Awards

By Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster

We’ve been doing this for twelve years now, and this was, without question, the hardest it’s ever been to come up with these “awards.” The year was grim from the start, and architecture was deeply implicated. It kicked off in January with the desecration of the Capitol, in June we had the catastrophic collapse of the Surfside condo tower, in August the Vessel closed after a fourth suicide, September brought the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and through it all the pandemic has marched its way through the Greek alphabet. So yeah, it’s been a rough twelve months.

But it is the holiday season, a time for cheer, and we’re back with our review of the best and worst in architecture and design for 2021. And so … on to the fake prizes!

Is There Any Damn Place to Sit Down Here Award? To Diller’s Folly, a.k.a. Golf Tee Island, a.k.a. Little Island. The thing cost $250m and there’s not a bench in shade to be found. But lord is there a lot of fencing.

A Hollywood Agent's Jaw-Dropping Desert Home Comes Into Cinematic Focus

Design by Kovac Design Studio. Photo by Roger Davies.

Did we mention the 5,000-square-foot sun shade?

What does it take to make a getaway truly relaxing? For some people, it’s communing with nature. For other travelers, it’s spa services. For weekenders, it can be a home away from home. For Todd Feldman, a film and television agent at Creative Artists Agency, it was not having to choose. His seven-bedroom, 9,200-square-foot vacation house at the private Madison Club in La Quinta, California, designed by Kovac Design Studio and completed in 2020, is Palm Springs pad as boutique hotel, with Mad Men flourishes and a museum-worthy outdoor canopy, a bar ready for Out of Sight–level seduction, and a concession stand stocked for Fight Night.

“Often, when you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s place, there is that little bit of awkwardness,” Feldman says. “You get up in the morning, and if you are an early riser like I am, you’re standing there by the coffee machine and you haven’t yet brushed your teeth. Or even when you’re having a great night, some people want to go to bed a little earlier. There’s a push-pull.”

threesixtyCITY: Designing Cities That Care

“Care” has become urbanists’ watchword of late, nearly two years after the pandemic exposed a crisis of care for children, seniors, and cities alike. More recently, the urban designer Justin Garrett Moore has called for a “Department of Care” to manage the public realm, while new models of care-based cohousing are among the exhibits on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s new exhibit, “A Section of Now.” But what does it mean to design for care, and is this just the latest buzzword, destined to be hollowed out? For the season finale, we’re joined by Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood, to discuss what it means to care.