Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 by Ai Weiwei
I picked this one up at the Monterey Design Conference last year, knowing that the architect and artist Ai Weiwei had maintained an important online diary that had contained his musings on art, politics, design, furniture, people, and a great deal many other things. I knew that the Chinese government had shut the blog down on several occasions but had done little to dampen the author’s influence both in his own country and abroad. The way that it’s written and printed, with many entries, some short, some longer, make it possible to open this book at any page and get sucked in immediately. I just opened it, and I landed on this: “Writing one’s feelings is simple, but can also be a difficult thing, for at least the following reasons: You can’t be sure this is really what you are thinking; If you write something down, it will never be anything else; It’s difficult to maintain a good writer’s posture from beginning to end.”
The English House by Hermann Muthesius
This is a recent acquisition. I’ve long known of Muthesius, founder of the Deutscher Werkbund, and his influence on the modern architecture movement in Germany, but I’d never read any of his own published works until I ordered this one. I was prepared for a scholarly take on the decorative arts, but what I was not prepared for is his arch wit and social commentary. This is an essential read for anyone wishing to get a sense of popular aesthetic impulses at the turn of the last century. It really helped me frame my own understanding of just how shocking the modern movement was to the prevailing winds of the time.
Favorite Greek Myths by Mary Pope Osborne with illustrations by Troy Howell
I received this book for my 11th birthday, at the height of my infatuation with mythology. The inscription reads: “To Amanda—I couldn’t find this in Latin or Greek, which I know you would have preferred”—this a gentle joke at my expense, as this was the same year I started as a first-year Latin student and let’s say I didn’t quite have a shining aptitude for conjugating dead-language verbs. In any case, this is a much-beloved book and one that always reminds me that though the subject matter has changed, I remain the same reader.
A Field Guide to Landmarks of Modern Architecture in Europe by Miriam F. Stimpson
Every time I have the opportunity to travel in Europe, I peruse this book, assembled by Stimpson, a professor at Brigham Young University. Within it are simple line drawings of structures of note, organized by country, with a small paragraph of explanation accompanying the illustration. It was published in the mid-1980s and it’s an incredible resource for travelers or for lovers of modern architecture in general.
How to See: A Guide to Reading our Manmade Environment by George Nelson Prefab
My copy of this book is old and smells like mold. It was another second-hand purchase, and it once belonged to a library. Not only do I love the wit and clarity found in Nelson’s writing, I also love the way this book is composed. Whether he’s dealing with the visual pollution clogging our daily lives, the necessity of avoiding “the monstrosity of sprawl,” or the proper way to “read” a painting or a sign, Nelson is a patient but forthright teacher for training oneself to embrace the right kind of sight.
Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction by Ryan E. Smith
This book has aided in my technical understanding of prefab construction like no other. Written for architects and design and construction professionals, Smith’s book is packed with informative background on the methodology of prefab. Though I am not a building professional, the content presented is easy to understand and parse. Smith presents case studies, interviews with architects in the field, and the book contains a multitude of photographs and illustrations that reinforce the ideas within the pages. I return to this book again and again.
Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing by Ved Mehta
This book is a touching tribute to the incomparable William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, written by one of his long-standing contributing writers, Ved Mehta. I’ve long been interested in the life of Mr. Shawn, who was an exceedingly sensitive editor, a staunch defender of writers, and a complicated man in his personal life. This book helped me understand why he was considered such a great editor: he listened and focused on the ideas and words of the writers, but he did not rewrite. A good editor is flexible, but stands firm when needed, not without emotion but without ego.
Roots of Contemporary American Architecture by Lewis Mumford
I studied this book in college, but it wasn’t until I started working for Dwell that I purchased a second-hand copy for my bookshelves. This collection of 37 essays, penned by everyone from Mumford himself to Philip Johnson and Henry David Thoreau, has solidified my foundational knowledge of architecture and filled in the gaps of my design education. This is not a book that’s meant to be read cover-to-cover, at least, not for me. I read one essay at a time, and I return to them again and again. My favorite time to tackle these essays is first thing in the morning, on the train to work. Then I try to turn the ideas over in my mind over the course of the day, and I return to the same essay on my way home. I won’t say that I can quote it from memory or that I have completely mastered the ideas contained within the pages, but it’s a book that I try to challenge myself with on a regular basis.
The Turkish Embassy Letters by Mary Wortley
Written in the first half of the 18th century by Lady Mary Wortley, wife of an ambassador to Turkey, this book is one of the finest collections of travel essays I’ve read. Her language is so evocative, the details she notes about the people, buildings, places she visits are beautiful without being florid. Her narrative style is objective without being dispassionate, engaging and innately curious.
This post was previously published on February 19, 2013 at Designers & Books.
The following interview is reprinted with permission from Designers & Books.
Designers & Books: You've made your mark as a writer and editor in design magazines. How did you get interested in design?
Amanda Dameron: My stepfather was a stained-glass artist and all-around maker who encouraged my love for and understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and utility. He was very knowledgeable about furniture, he was always building new things out of found materials, and he had many books about design. My mother loves interior design and the two of them were always conspiring about their next renovation project or moving furniture around. They also kept a subscription to Architectural Digest, which I would often thumb through.
Do you remember the first design book you read that had an impact on you?
I loved looking through my parents’ collection of books on art glass, and I recall being very inspired by a book given to me in seventh grade about photography. Soon after, I learned how to develop my own film in a makeshift darkroom in our basement. Those books really helped me understand how to appreciate form and composition.
You mentioned to us that you were a binge reader when you were a child—that when you found an author you liked, you would read everything you could get your hands on by that author. Do you still read that way?
Yes, though I usually binge on writers of fiction. Authors that come to mind: Pearl S. Buck, J. D. Salinger, George Saunders, David Sedaris.
Your first job out of college was at one of the oldest independent bookstores in Los Angeles. How did that experience shape your relationship to books?
The bookstore was called Midnight Special, and each of the bookstore's eight employees had their own section of the store to buy titles for. My section included art, photography, architecture, and design, but I learned so much from my colleagues who handled sections like history, politics, and poetry. It wasn't until I worked there that I began to really understand the world, and my place in it. A lot of my preconceived notions were tested during that time, and I discovered a great many authors and subjects that I'd never even heard of before then.
You lead a magazine noted for its focus on modern design (its tagline is “At home in the modern world”). Do you have favorite books in your personal collection that focus on early designers or early periods?
Yes, and my selections for Designers & Books reflect this. Two are The English House by Herbert Muthesius from 1904, and The Turkish Embassy Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, which details buildings and places the wife of the American ambassador to Turkey visited during the first half of the 18th century.
Most of the books on your list are about design—and then there's the book about The New Yorker’s William Shawn and “the invisible art of editing.” You have an extensive background in both design and editing—do you see any similarities between the two fields?
Absolutely! In both disciplines, the real artistry is often invisible to the naked eye.