The bookshelves in my office are spaced 35cm apart. Dieter Rams, who designed them, put in the peg-holes at 7cm intervals, and years of trial and error have convinced me that I need five of them/ hence the 35cm spacing. The shelves are also very deep. This is because the design, art and architecture books that line my office are bigger – in some cases a lot bigger – than normal books, because of all the pictures in them. It’s remarkable how many of them exactly fit my chosen module. I’m looking now at a Pentagram volume, complete with slipcase, which fits so perfectly it must surely have been designed with exactly this system in mind.
I’m very conscious of this because I’m in the middle of restocking the shelves, having cleared out the office and started again. Ten years of working in the same room doesn’t half lead to some clutter. I’ve been doing my shelf-stacking very slowly indeed, a box or two at a time, since the turn of the year. I’d be useless working in a supermarket. I’m chucking stuff out as I go and I reckon I’m about two-thirds done now. And one thing really annoys me: the over-sized book.
Yes, over-sized even by the standards of design publishing. True, you also get the odd very tiny book, but it’s the truly giant ones that upset me. They don’t fit on the shelves. There aren’t enough of them to make it worthwhile having a special shelf for giant books. They are so phenomenally heavy that it is almost impossible to read them anyway – you’d need one of those huge lecterns like they have in church pulpits. So what can you do? They end up on the floor. Or, given my current mood, the Oxfam shop. Because what’s the point of a book that’s designed to be very difficult to use?
There is an optimum size for everything. Take Smarties, for instance. There are your standard Smarties, which are perfect. But you can also get very tiny Smarties, and very large Smarties. These are both abominations, because in both cases the ratio of chocolate to candy shell is all wrong. Nor do I approve of the three-section Bounty bar. Two is right. I can remember when you could buy them singly. The three-pack is visually inept, badly proportioned. Besides, super-sized portions lead to obesity, something which seems to take rather stupid people by surprise.
Cars? The same applies. The main reason all right-thinking people instinctively hate SUVs is not that they are four-wheel drive: it’s because they are so ridiculously big. Look at them: same number of seats as a normal car, same internal space, but encased in needlessly wasteful, heavy bodywork. My shelf-stacking has brought to light a treasure: a motor show guide from 1958. Most of the cars in it are, by present-day standards, tiny. As is the book itself, a slip of a paperback designed to go in a pocket. This was lean, appropriate design.
There’s a serious point behind all this. All design by humans is obviously for humans to use or to interact with.
Some things are just right, and look right. And others? When the things we design start to get bloated, then that tells us that we too are getting bloated, physically or mentally. Those annoyingly huge books may have something in common with specially widened aircraft seats. You don’t have to be fat to read them, but it helps. That’s why I’m giving them away. Assuming I have the strength to lift them.
Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors