Books

5 Design Books That Are Easy on the Eyes

This article is part of our latest Design special report, about homes for multiple generations and new definitions of family.

Design details that serve no utilitarian purpose but help lift spirits can become obsessions for craftspeople and authors. These five volumes explain why anyone would embed polished conches in stucco walls, engulf cellphone towers in plastic pine needles or inlay woodworkers’ benches with images of woodworkers at work.

In Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe (Princeton University Press, $49.95, 214 pp.), seven scholars dissect why Renaissance-era collectors braved maritime hazards to beachcomb. Finding the pearliest treasures at shorelines called for avoiding crocodiles, spiny urchins and “burning sea slime,” Claudia Swan, one of the essayists, points out. The poet Petrarch recorded how trolling for seashells could help people feel “unconscious of depressing cares.”

Painters depicted shells, with names as wonderful as “precious wentletrap” and “speckled episcopal miter,” arrayed on banquet tables or in the hands of exulting deities. Metalsmiths set nautiluses on gold pedestals sculpted with mermaid and sea foam motifs. Collectors had favorite shells cemented onto grotto walls, sometimes in the bristly shapes of pine cones and artichokes. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that he feared “the threatening dark” when he entered grottoes, but then succumbed to the “desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”

A captivating exhibition of mixed-media design, the Brooklyn Museum’s Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863-82 comes with a catalog from Hirmer Publishers ($50, 208 pp.). Edited by Barbara Veith and Medill Higgins Harvey, the book is the first in-depth study of the partnership of Anton Kimbel and Joseph Cabus, European-born craftsmen who founded a furniture-making dynasty in New York. At times more than 100 people worked for the now-obscure cabinetmakers, and clients included elite politicians, physicians and businessmen. Their furniture, with dynamic diagonal supports and imposing scale, had “the presence of small buildings, complete with gables, balustrades, capitals, columns and doors,” Ms. Veith and Ms. Harvey write.

Kimbel’s and Cabus’s artisans contrasted planes of caramel and ebonized wood with incised gilding, turquoise tiles and velvety red textiles. Reviews of their work ranged from “very original, very perfect, a triumph of color” to “flayed alive — their joints and tendons displayed.” In recent years, major examples of their furniture and related drawings have surfaced and ended up on public view. A philanthropist couple, Barrie and Deedee Wigmore, have donated pieces to institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A balustrade-topped cabinet, inlaid with portraits of a medieval scholar and a jester, has come to the Brooklyn Museum from its longtime decorative arts curator Barry R. Harwood, who died in 2018 before realizing his long-planned Kimbel and Cabus retrospective.

Amid controversy and media frenzy, Jacqueline Kennedy rethought the layout and palette of virtually every White House room, leaving behind a vast archival trail. Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration and Its Legacy (White House Historical Association, $65, 392 pp.), by the historians James Archer Abbott and Elaine Rice Bachmann, reveals the first lady navigating conflicting advice. Her advisers included two scholarly philanthropists, Jayne Wrightsman and Henry du Pont, and a French interior designer, Stéphane Boudin, who had a reputation for importing grandiosity. Gifts of sometimes mislabeled antiques came in from well-meaning donors and ended up sent back. Purchase prices leaked to the press — “old and broken down” was one critic’s description of $12,500 worth of Zuber scenic wallpaper from the early 1800s. The book quotes Jacqueline Kennedy’s blunt evaluations of existing conditions: a corridor with hospital-green carpeting reminded her of a “dentist’s office bomb shelter.” The first lady pragmatically had Victorian pieces excavated from government warehouses and “made sure that delicate fringes and tassels were not included in window treatments accessible to souvenir-seeking visitors,” the authors note. Meticulously labeled fabric swatches have been preserved from the 1,036-day project, along with photographs of curators and craftspeople at work.

In Saws, Planes, and Scorps: Exceptional Woodworking Tools and Their Makers (Princeton Architectural Press, $27.50, 216 pp.), the woodworking writer David Heim offers about 80 profiles of workshops around the world, mostly tiny. Their specialties are as niche as spokeshaves (used to shape carriage spokes or smooth arrows) and birdcage awls. Mr. Heim’s interviewees find design inspiration in fighter plane wings and foxes’ tails. They spend months apiece on custom tools made from maple blocks infused with resin and components of scrapped cars.

A few of the artisans had previous careers — a derivatives trader, a fruit farmer — but many never veered from the tool track. “I knew I wanted to focus on making one thing and making it well,” said Claire Minihan, who is renowned for travishers (used to smooth chairs’ curves). The knife maker Del Stubbs rhapsodized about “the romance of pounding on steel,” and Mark Harrell compared his role in straightening saw teeth to “a drill sergeant getting troops into formation.”

In researching Fauxliage: Disguised Cell Phone Towers of the American West (Daylight Books, $45, 123 pp.), the photographer Annette LeMay Burke traveled through eight states, asking locals to point out the most idiosyncratic camouflaged examples. Loosely modeled on cactuses, palms, pines and eucalyptuses, they are tucked between bowling alleys and sewage treatment plants. They loom over megachurches, schoolyards, pastures and botanical gardens. The giveaways of the mechanical innards include excessive height, symmetry, perfect health and uninhabited branches — “I never saw a bird nest in a tower,” Ms. Burke writes.

She captures moments when, at the bases of fake trees, a male peacock struts across a side street and suburbanites drape simulated cobwebs across front-yard shrubbery as Halloween decorations. The towers have become somewhat endangered, however, as the plastic leaves deteriorate and manufacturers develop ever smaller roadside equipment. Ms. Burke compares their potential impending obsolescence to the current status of “drive-up photo kiosks, phone booths, newsstands and drive-in movie theaters.” Will any open-air museums take in some surviving frankenpines, so birds can perch briefly on the unyielding branches?

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