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The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I sort of stole this book review from my husband, meaning that I robbed him of the opportunity to review it himself as soon as I set eyes on it after his discovering and sharing it with me. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt is as beautiful as it is brilliant. But first, who are these guys and why everyday design?

Roman Mars is the creator and host of the fascinating and entertaining 99% Invisible podcast (est. 2010). Initially, 99% Invisible was a one-man show, but has since grown into a talented staff, including Kurt Kohlstedt, who is the digital director and a producer, as well as co-author of this book. On 99pi.org, they describe the podcast as being “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In other words, it’s about everyday design. The premise for the book reflects that of the podcast. Now, let’s tune in to the book proper.

The 99% Invisible City is tangibly splendid, making it clear that careful consideration went not only into the design of the book, but the touch and feel of its materials. The texture and weight of its matte pages are pleasant to the touch and the embossed cover and half-sized jacket are nice features. Of special note is the cover image. Spanning both covers, several figures within the image are labeled numerically, corresponding to the legend printed inside the book jacket. I repeat: the legend printed inside the book jacket—almost too cool!

Content is organized into six chapters, each of which is further arranged into three to six sections containing short entries. I appreciate a well-organized book, especially when, like in this one, an array of topics is covered. It’s as well-researched as it is organized, with an expansive bibliography that, if you’re interested, doubles as a “further reading” list.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a coffee table book, as it’s not glossy and oversized (or overpriced), I’d say it’s like a coffee table book in that it’s interesting to look at, makes for a great conversation piece, and is suitable for casual reading while still appealing to avid readers.

The 99% Invisible City is exactly as it claims, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Like most field guides, it can be read in its entirety or in bits and pieces. I skipped ahead to chapter four – Architecture, my favorite – after reading chapter one only in part and wandering about here and there in other parts of the book. Regardless of how its read, it recalls visuals of everyday things I’ve seen and wondered “What/why is that?!”

Have you ever heard of stink pipes (think obelisks)? According to Mars and Kohlstedt, obelisks and “other seemingly innocuous sculptures in cities around the world” are, by design, meant to ventilate their sewer systems. So, if you find yourself near such a structure, then you might give the air a sniff to see whether the sculpture is functional or purely aesthetic.

The standardization of utility codes, such as those one sometimes sees spray painted on the ground, came into being after a massive explosion killed/injured at least two dozen people in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. Today, the American National Standards Institute maintains the codes: red means electrical, orange signals telecommunications, yellow identifies combustive materials, pink is for “temporary markings, unidentified facilities, or known unknowns,” and so on. Though not hidden but generally unnoticed, these markings are, by design, meant to make our communities safer.

The authors also explore how regulations may influence everyday design. Perhaps this is best seen in architectural landscapes. For example, the British government once implemented an individual brick tax, thereby causing manufacturers to create larger bricks or builders to use other building materials. A similar window tax, again in Britain, caused people to board up or otherwise cover up their windows. The effects of these taxes can still be seen (or, as in the case of the windows, hidden) today.

Planned failures (e.g. breakaway posts), municipal flags, inflatable figures, towers, foundations, graveyards, water, technology, illumination, property markers, manhole covers, and so much more are covered within the covers of this book. The 99% Invisible City is everyday design presented and written about in an extraordinary manner. What’s more, it’s all remarkably illustrated by Patrick Vale. Though “for all you plaque readers and curious urbanists” is inscribed on the title page, this book has something for everyone. Check it out!

As always, happy reading.

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Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns by Jude Stewart

What are you wearing? Plaid (tartan)? Paisley? How about stripes or polka dots? Perhaps a fleur-de-lis pin graces your lapel? Regardless, these motifs and patterns and more have fascinating associations and histories as told by Jude Stewart in his book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns.

In addition to content, the book itself is somewhat unconventional by design, both physically and stylistically. Titles found in the adult nonfiction collection tend to be large and heavy, whereas Patternalia is small and lightweight. Stylistically, Patternalia defies the typical beginning, middle, end formula for telling such stories. The text is dotted with cross-references so readers may develop an alternate storyline. It’s also embellished with quotes and bold graphics throughout.

Stewart starts us on our journey with a crash course in patterns and pattern lingo as well as an explanation of how our brains perceive “symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity”–basically, a pattern–and how we define and process this into what we see. He discusses ‘pareidolia,’ “the process of seeing imaginary forms, especially faces, in random stimuli,” such as outlets, and ‘apophenia,’ which is the perception of pattern where there is none, which may be either visual or conceptual. A conceptual example of apophenia is that of “gambler’s fallacy.”

Before we delve into particular patterns proper, we learn a bit about the history of patterns and the textile industry. The gist is that as production became increasingly industrialized, patterned textiles became cheaper, easily portable, and shareable across cultures. As patterns and patterned textiles crossed national borders, their meanings could change or evolve, such as with popular “African print” textiles. (Why? Read the book!)

As pattern and textile technology continued to advance, patterns were able to be printed directly onto textiles, which led to disposable fashions. Think Paper Caper dresses and such. Imagine wearing your clothes a few times and throwing them into the trash can rather than the laundry basket. These sorts of disposable fashions didn’t fall out of fashion until the rise of environmental consciousness. (Thank goodness for environmental consciousness!)

But what about the patterns? I dare say we take them for granted, no doubt due to their ubiquitousness–they’re everywhere! Patterns hold histories and connotations, whether we realize it or not. Take polka dots, for example. According to Stewart, dots and spots–polka dots–gained popularity “from an extended craze for polka music” that overtook Europe in the mid-1800s. But in Medieval Europe, polka dots were reminiscent of disease and death. Specifically, syphilis, bubonic plague, measles, and more. Yet we enjoy polka dot patterns on an array of items, from notebooks to scrapbooking paper, t-shirts to bathing suits, bedding to curtains, and so on, without considering their history. Not to mention the parallel Stewart draws between dot art and activism–bravo!

Overall, Stewart’s Patternalia is as charming as it is interesting. My only criticism is that it ends rather abruptly, not unlike this review. As for the other patterns–plaid, paisley, stripes, fleur-de-lis, checkered, houndstooth, etc.–you’ll have to check it out for yourself. I leave you with this anonymous quote: “Even a small dot can stop a big sentence, but a few more dots can give a continuity…”

As always, happy reading.

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