Word Play

Words Fail Me
By Teresa Monachino (Phaidon Press)

What will you get for that distant cousin who publicly insulted your haircut at the last family gathering for Christmas? Or that office colleague who always drinks the last cup of coffee? When an occasion for compulsory gift-giving arises, Phaidon has published a little book that will befuddle the dimwitted and amuse just about everyone else. The title Words Fail Me (by Teresa Monachino) begs the snarky response, “Indeed so.” Narrow pages feature individual words or short phrases as well as a bit of art direction mostly evident in the different font sizes that showcase Monachino’s graphic design background. The format is meant to elicit a chuckle from clever readers who are flummoxed and astonished by the irony that the word “believe” contains the word “lie” hiding between a vowel and a suspect consonant. In case you didn’t get the point, the author presents the word in a size-18 font on a black background with the letters in white, save for that sneaky “l-i-e” in brazen red. The “lack of logic” and “peculiarity” of language has certainly inspired generations of linguists and writers to adopt the art of wordplay. Unfortunately, Words Fail Me is a rather prosaic collection of glib constructions, such as word scrambles which reveal that the words “aim to condemn” can be derived from “condemnation.” While the slim, pocket-sized volume might have fared better with the more substantive size of a coffee table book. Words Fail Me just might make for a perfect stocking stuffer for the Eats, Shoots & Leaves fans. -Joscelin Cooper

UNStudio: Design Models-Architecture, Urbanism, Infrastructure
Eds. Ben van Berkel, Caroline Bos (Rizzoli Press)

“Design has become overorganized… prepackaged, market-oriented and trend- and fashion-driven.” Or so opines Caroline Bos, writer and UNStudio cofounder, whose commentary provides the textual accompaniment to the photographic catalogue of the Amsterdam-based architecture firm’s body of work. The volume serves as a treatise of Bos and UNStudio cohort Ben van Berkel’s collaborations and diagrams the five design models meant to free contemporary architecture from the homogeneity of a mass-produced avant-garde aesthetic. The duo subtracts the rarified air lent to the concept of design, and instead urges architects to focus on functional models that can be replicated to produce many structures. Two essays, “Design Models” and “After Image,” frame the collection. However, if Bos’ design manifestos are esoteric at times, the visual acuity of the works communicates more effectively. Architect van Berkel is the mastermind behind the functional beauty of the structures, and he translates the formulas developed by the firm into buildings and objects that are interpretative and subtle. The “Blob to Box” model responds to the firm’s distaste for fragmentation and seeks to address the issue of connecting sections of a structure that differ in form and function. The model explores the transformation of rigid, angular forms into something more fluid and collapsed; the model is subsequently applied to projects as diverse as a private residence or the pylons of a bridge. Bos and van Berkel assert that architecture is much like a live performance, dependent on interaction with the public to lend it value. Yet the paradox is that a book about architecture has nothing in common with a performance and instead is more similar to a painting which can only engage the viewer for a finite period of time. -JC

Il Modo Italiano: Italian Design and Avant-garde in the 20th Century
Eds. Guy Cogeval, Giampiero Bosoni (Rizzoli Press)

Artistic burgeoning always accompanies the end of repression and war. As the saucer-eyed culture of cute emerged from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as cubism evolved in Franco’s Spain, the fallout from fascism and two world wars produced a distinct flavor of Italian modernism. The violent momentum of Futurist Synthetic theater and even the rakishness implied by a Fiat convertible evidence a distinctly Italian brand of creation that “mixes the sacred and the profane.” Il Modo Italiano commemorates the exhibition of the same name currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which continues onto Toronto and finally Rome by early 2007. The exhibition places 20th-century works from Italian artists side by side with utilitarian objects such as armchairs, clothing or kitchen receptacles. The shared heritage of the fine arts and industrial design is explored as a chrome tea and coffee service becomes as much a product of temporality and cultural shifts as a canvas by Mario Sironi. The book provides a wealth of socio-cultural and historic background as well as linguistic reflection on the introduction of certain words into the lexicon of 20th-century Italian design. Giampiero Bosoni, editor of the volume, stresses that il modo italiano refers to a specific “way” of making “things.” These “things” are sculptures, paintings, photographs and even functional objects – all existing in a terrain that is not delineated into levels for “major” or “minor” arts – while the “way,” or manner of creation, is pure italiano. -JC

Oscar Niemeyer Houses
Photos: Alan Weintraub; Text: Alan Hess (Rizzoli Press)

The name Oscar Niemeyer does not typically evoke images of quaint houses tucked away from the public on some reclusive hillside. Niemeyer is recognized throughout the world as a true master of the modernist architecture movement of the 20th-century and earned the reputation of a revolutionary for his large, sensual and stunning civic and residential buildings. In between these behemoth projects, however, Niemeyer was also designing radical custom houses during his many decades as a Brazilian (and later global) architect. But as the world clamored over his significant civic contributions, they were largely unaware of his houses. Now, a full portfolio of these residences, captured by photographer Alan Weintraub, gives both design connoisseurs and house lovers a chance to pore over sweeping photographs and detailed design notes that reveal the hidden half of Niemeyer’s professional life. Incorporating a blend of historic Portuguese architecture and his own daring conceptions, Niemeyer’s houses feature both his signature use of reinforced concrete as well as his love affair with the curve. From the free-form concrete roof and bending glass walls of his own 1953 house, to the S-curve ramps and stairways he habitually employed, each of his houses possesses a unique personality grounded in sensuality; in design, every house has its own unique concept, and as a whole they cannot be packaged into neat categorizations. Ultimately, Niemeyer’s designs can best be understood by understanding the influences of the man himself. “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he writes in the opening of the book. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.” -Hunter Holcombe