Improving on a classic

The Design Encyclopedia is an exhaustive reference book that has just been reissued.

There is something about the second edition of a reference book. It has a feel to it – call it confidence, verve, general capability – that a first edition, tiptoeing nervously out into the world, can never possess. A first edition can (and statistically usually does) fall flat on its face. A second edition speaks of success. The bottom line is that the original version has sold enough copies to justify the publisher investing in a remake. And for the reader, it can be a rare delight.

Which is why anyone with an interest in the world of design should pop corks to welcome the re-publication of The Design Encyclopedia by Mel Byars, exactly a decade after it first came out. I have no idea who Byars is, but I know his book intimately. It has been a bible beside my desk, bristling with sticky bookmarks, for most of that decade. The new edition moves up a gear. So let’s try to track down Byars.

He is a mysterious beast, but there are clues. For the 1994 edition he gave his base as New York, for the second he seems to have moved to France (‘premises in Paris generously provided by the baron and baronne Kirgener de Planta’, he says in his introduction, thus giving the enterprise something of a Proustian quality). In the first edition he was described as a journalist, social scientist and all-purpose publishing/graphics/advertising wallah with a specialism in 20th century decorative arts. His list of publications in 1994 was slight. But the book has clearly made his name. For the new edition, he is ‘the acclaimed design historian’, the author of numerous books on design – usually of the list-making variety that is clearly his forte. In the interim, ‘social scientist’ has become ‘anthropologist’. It sounds somehow weightier, as the book has become. On his website (though not in the books) he is a professor, and lists a string of teaching posts.

In the first edition, he name-checked a few helpers – academics in sundry disciplines, their seat of learning named – the Royal College of Art and Kingston University yielded a few, for instance. In the second, the talk is of ‘an international team of experts’. They have exotic, foreign names, their bases are hardly mentioned and, apart from a squad from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I have never heard of any of them. Who is Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, I wonder?

The first version was an independent book, with 118 black-and-white illustrations. But MoMA is co-publisher of Mark Two, and has a forward by the museum’s Terence Riley to prove it. It has more than 700 colour illustrations. It has the same format and two-column layout of the original, but is more than 200 pages longer. Despite this – and despite having a smaller typeface – there are officially fewer entries now. It carries 3500 rather than the original 4000.

A quick flick through reveals why this is so. The first time, Byars was aiming at completeness, inasmuch as this is possible when tackling the whole of design since Victorian times. He admits some entries were ‘undernourished’. Today, they are much plumper. To accommodate this, there has been some selective weeding. Jewellery is out, cars and computers are in. This is MoMA, not the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Manhattan museum’s shadow falls heavily across the new edition, but in a generally benign way. Riley talks ominously in his foreword of making it ‘lighter and easier to read’. If this sounds like dumbing-down, it’s not too bad. An entry such as the one for American computer wizard Douglas Engelbart (he invented the computer mouse and was an Internet pioneer) reads in a slightly awestruck, very MoMA way, but it certainly broadens most people’s idea of what design is.

All this is – for me at least – endlessly fascinating. People get their kicks in all kinds of ways, so why shouldn’t I spend a wet Monday morning comparing and contrasting two editions of the same reference book? I’ve done it for architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Charles Jencks, I’ve done it for the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I’ve done it for Who’s Who. If I had enough time I’d probably do it for the London telephone directory. Byers says that it was his ‘obsessive nature’ that brought the book to completion. I recognise that obsessiveness. I still don’t know much else about the elusive author, but at least I know what to say about his new Design Encylopedia. Rejoice! Rejoice!

The Design Encylopedia by Mel Byars is published by Laurence King and MoMA, priced £40

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