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Judging a book by its cover

Why vintage design books are now so radical—and radically expensive

In February 1972, the design director at MIT Press thought she had a fabulous idea. The publisher’s forthcoming book was about Las Vegas, and she would make the cover an “homage to Vegas Glitz.” Bubble wrap would echo the shape of the Strip’s bulb lights, fluorescent dots printed beneath would shine through the plastic. “I thought: boy, this is wonderful material. I’m not gonna let them screw it,” she later told an interviewer. “Well, they hated it! I loved it.”

The authors of the book responded by letter: “The cover as designed is absolutely unacceptable: leaving out questions of good or bad design, it is inappropriate. It is against the philosophy of the book; it is a duck—‘heroic and original’—almost fruity in its appearance.”

And so, the seminal Learning from Las Vegas ended up with a straightforward exterior: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the authors, sketched for Muriel Cooper, the designer, “a dignified conventional image”: dark cover with authors and title stamped in gilt, wrapped in an onionskin jacket heavy with text. The wink to the reader was only in the choice of photograph, a billboard for coconut oil and cocoa butter, “Tan Hawaiian with TANYA,” in shades of yellow and sienna. Provocative, in every sense of the word.

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Two thousand copies of that first 14-by-11-inch edition of Learning from Las Vegas were printed. Cooper got her way on the inside, using her favorite Swiss grid to organize Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s idiosyncratic material into a jumpy, bumpy, cinematic tour of streetscapes and Nolli maps, cartoons and tourist brochures. She used the book’s overscale pages not to showcase gorgeous architectural photography but to assemble their information into visual and verbal snapshots.

It’s a gorgeous old book, redolent of the messiness of its era, when modernism ran up against reality. A time when architects were trying to say something, when photography wasn’t quite so slick, when drawing was the thing. Its origin story also embodies a frequent tension between architects and graphic designers about whose style speaks loudest in book form.

If this description of Learning from Las Vegas sounds unfamiliar, that’s because you’ve probably never seen Cooper’s version of the book—unless you checked it out for an hour from the rare book library. Copies, most missing the glassine dust jacket, can go for thousands. The version you read in school was published in 1977, a cheap little paperback “stripped and newly clothed” by the authors. (This tangled publication history is analyzed in detail in Aron Vinegar’s I Am A Monument; Cooper, who also designed the press’s logo and pioneered digital design, is now the subject of her own big purple book.)

That’s how they wanted it … but that’s not how we wanted it. Many have wondered, why not reprint? The authors always declined until 2016, when Scott Brown finally said yes. After 45 years, MIT Press recently published a facsimile edition of O.G. LLV with a new preface by Scott Brown explaining, “Our small, cheap, readable U&O book is skimpy, but its ethos is right.”

Alexandra Lange
Alexandra Lange

She’s not entirely wrong—students need to be able to afford their book list—but Cooper’s heroics strike me somewhat differently now. I see architectural photographs all the time; if I’m going to pay for them I want something more. More than a self-congratulatory essay, more than a compendium of projects, more than a nice book that’s mostly a calling card. These old books contain worlds and also, given our distance, invite criticism.

I love old books almost as much as old buildings, and I’m not alone. I asked my Twitter tribe for the books of their dreams, and many were contemporaries of Learning from Las Vegas: Paul Rudolph’s 1972 Architectural Drawings, Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 Delirious New York, Reyner Banham’s 1976 Megastructure, John Hejduk’s Mask of Medusa, 1989, Paolo Soleri’s 1969 Arcology: The City in the Image of Man ($400 for just the reprint). Lebbeus Woods’s The New City goes for nearly $3,000. On @makearchitecturebooksagain, an Instagram account devoted to the library of an architect couple, these guys—plus this early A+U on Peter Zumthor—have generated the most likes.

The male gurus of megastructure battle it out with undermining, female wits like Cooper and Madelon Vriesendorp (the book designer of Delirious), which seems as right for this moment as it was in the 1970s. A few years ago, midcentury modern books might have been all the rage (I treasure my 1962 monograph on SOM) but books are the cheapest on-ramp to larger cultural taste changes, and a better place to deposit your love of Brutalism than a concrete coffee maker. Though everyone wants the Rudolph book now, with its signature perspective section of the triangular Burroughs-Wellcome Headquarters on the cover, it was overshadowed by the Venturis, and theory, when it was published in 1972. Today, drawing seems radical—and Rudolph’s introductory essay, on the difference between his renderings and his buildings’ reality, seems prescient.

When he writes, “Early in my career I often made the actual size of a space seem bigger by decreasing the size of scale figures,” a grand old man of architecture suddenly seems vulnerable. Who today admits to padding their monograph with unbuilt works, photorealistically rendered?

Randall Ross, whose Modernism 101 website I often window shop, says there is both a market and an art to pricing out-of-print books. “You try to anticipate trends with the lifecycle of a person, their high and low points, new buildings, Pritzker prize-winners, new buildings built or destroyed—either good or bad reasons,” he says. When an architect dies, “if they have published output, I will dust it off.”

I stare at my paperback Delirious, which has the original cover illustration by Vriesendorp of a post-coital Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. A deflated Goodyear blimp is their condom, the Manhattan grid is their carpet. It is more Tanya than gilt, and more bubble wrap than both. When Monacelli republished Delirious they substituted a photograph of Manhattan’s XYZ Buildings, tombstones of modernism rather than a puckish ode to buildings as characters. They made it shorter and thicker too, less like a children’s book. Scott Brown wasn’t wrong that a jacket colors your perception of what’s inside. I think it is easier to understand Koolhaas’s original intent when his words aren’t packaged as theoretical monument.

When you buy an old book you buy not just the content but the total package: the cover facade, the furniture layout, and the conversations to be had over this coffee table or lounging on that sofa. A new book on an old topic may use the right period fonts, the correct Swiss grid, but that is a performance of aura rather than the real thing, Mad Men rather than the untouched Lafayette Park galley kitchen, the unrenovated turquoise Paul Rudolph bathroom.

Single images on Pinterest, of old books or old houses, tell only a partial story. Watch the postmodern projects disappear from the monographs of architects who practiced from the 1970s to the present, for example. Watch the laminates get replaced with marble, the glass block with frosted panels. We renovate the past to reflect current taste. The real thing is usually weirder and sometimes shabbier than your imagination.

Alexander Girard’s 1949 “For Modern Living” exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts brought together the talents of Alvar Aalto, Jens Risom, Bruno Mathsson, Florence Knoll, and the Eameses to design room-size showcases of their work. Visitors were treated to a short history of modern design, written by historian John A. Kouwenhoven, and a mural of Detroit drawn by artist Saul Steinberg.

What comes down to us in book form is a 101-page spiral bound catalog, flimsy like a pamphlet, with the text on harvest-tone pages, black-and-white photographs, and Steinberg’s drawing of an Eames chair with an embroidered antimacassar, expressing the ambivalence of Americans toward this strange new furniture. It is homey and quirky, modernism not yet sure of its straight-edge bonafides.

Courtesy of Modernism 101
Courtesy of Modernism 101

Given that no interior design article today seems complete without a Memphis reference, I’m surprised prices aren’t higher (mere hundreds of dollars) for the key texts in a Sottsass library. Barbara Radice’s original book on the Memphis movement is also a relatively modest production, bursting with patterns, not with pretension.

Not the case for Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, most Americans’ first introduction to Ettore Sottsass’s hedonistic modernism. That catalog, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, also uses a glassine cover to play peekaboo, this time with a set of paper cutouts of the objects in the show. One could shake the cover like a snow globe, letting the plastic chips fall where they may, but this makes intact versions all the more precious. Curator Emilio Ambasz designed it himself, and the result is more Cooper than Scott Brown.

One book is so beautiful it has its own video: Irma Boom’s 2007 edition of Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, named “Most Beautiful Book in the World” at the Leipzig Book Fair. It is far more recent than most of the entries on this list, but its heroic and original design harks back to the glassine, fold-out, white space past, down to a matte white cover likely to be marred by the touch. Boom, a present-day maestra of the auratic book, chose to represent Hicks’ work by making a book that feels like you are holding a fistful of it in your hand. Chunky and chalky, with a blind-embossed textile cover and the shaggiest deckle edges you have ever seen, Weaving as Metaphor turns heroic graphic design into an act of impersonation.

For many years, my dream book find has been MoMA curator John Szarkowski’s The Idea of Louis Sullivan, the 1956 publication of Szarkowski’s photographs of Sullivan’s work across the Midwest. Lush and textured, the pictures show the rare plumage of Sullivan’s architecture in the ordinary commercial landscape. I find them deeply romantic. The layout is simple because the images provide the glitz but just look at the cover: who puts chunky serifs on an angle now?

In a 1958 review, Hugh Morrison writes that, though you might dismiss it at first as a picture book, “This is a new kind of book and a new kind of history… Each building is seen in what the movie-producers would call a sequence—a series of photographs and text passages that have their own particular meanings in the unfolding of the total drama.”

Across time, across media, the book is giving us the architecture.

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