The gulf between quality television and all the rest of the rubbish is deepening, opening a chasm between Equinox and The X-Files which finds me listening to the radio or music or reading a book instead.
Judging by the proliferation of book revues and books to buy for Christmas which appear in publications from GQ to Cosmo and the Sunday supps, others are also bored by the air waves. Or maybe we’re too poor to go to the pub, or not working hard enough.
I always forget how good it is to get back down to the gym when I’ve been away for a while, and books are the same. Unlike television, you don’t get irritated by the graphics used in the title sequence (you can always re-cover a book with pages from a wallpaper sample book). You can design the costumes, interiors, locations and protagonists to a personal specification. It’s good for the left-hand side of the brain and may even have a beneficial effect on professional creative performance.
We always had reading lists at art school – although they did tend to be a tad academic, with such gems as EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Itten’s Bauhaus Foundation Course and Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Times have changed and so have prescribed reading lists: it seems that Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is high on the product designer’s reading list because it compels the student to think in broader sensorial dimensions than the purely visual.
Smell is a good sense to explore at Christmas, with food and pheromones on offer at every juncture. Smell is probably the most powerful human sense and the one that, without warning, can transport us back to our childhood or some hereto unremembered crease in history. Italo Calvino anticipated Suskind’s book about smell with a story of his own called The Name, The Nose, which is published with two other stories by the title of Under the Jaguar Sun. The two other stories are A King Listens, which is about hearing, and a story about taste, after which the collection is named. Calvino had hoped to write a collection of five stories about each of the senses but died before he could complete his work. However, at a recent evening lecture entitled The Tyranny of Taste, I was reminded that we have six senses, not five, so perhaps Calvino’s collection would not have been complete after all.
Calvino helps us unravel the hidden web of culture and society we manipulate through architecture and design. One of his other books, Invisible Cities, tells many tiny tales of different cities which are all, in fact, about one city, Rome. Each new tale reveals a different hidden dimension within the city. My favourite story tells how the citizens weave a web of threads between the city buildings. Each thread describes a relationship. When the threads get so numerous that they congest the roads and passages the citizens abandon their city and build a new one.
Calvino is to the invisible what Umberto Eco is to the visible. Eco has helped us to understand what we see through his three classifications of signs: symbols, icons and indices. He roots the definitions of all three firmly in the here and now, not in an abstract world of academic creation – and he’s a damn fine novelist to boot.
Books give us an alternative understanding of the present which may help us design the future. My favourite book about the future is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which is reckoned by many to be the best science fiction work of the decade. Stephenson deals with new technology, new media, world politics and Alan Turing, the man who made computers happen. The book follows the education and development of a young lady called Nell who happens upon a virtual book designed by a gifted neo-Victorian engineer. The book is interactive and tailored to her personality and human potential as soon as she opens the cover. Her education takes her from the development of binary code to the complexities of designing synthetic landscapes. It’s a great book on many head-bending levels and one which every designer should read.
This Christmas I will be switching off the telly and curling up with Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium and a can of superlager. Have a good one and I’ll see you next year.