The Twentieth Century Society

Reviews: Books round-up March 2015

by Catherine Croft

Art Deco Mailboxes: an Illustrated Design History Karen Greene & Lynne Lavelle (WW Norton and Co, 160pp, £18.99)

These ornate mailboxes (as found in large buildings, not on suburban lawns) from the 1890s through 1930 are predictably gorgeous (mainly Art Deco, lots of eagles), but their history is surprising. Architect James Cutler wasn’t the first to install a chute system, but in 1883 he patented an improved type which stopped the mail getting stuck or mangled on its way down. His company remained sole makers until the early 20th century, when Cutler, who by then had entered politics, challenged rivals by disputing their patents and finally organising a merger. This led to accusations of price fixing and collusion with the Post Office (which to my surprise owns the boxes – I’d assumed they were part of a uniquely American world of white-gloved doormen). While later patents focused on ejecting misplaced cigarette-ends, the boxes were finally banned in new buildings because they allowed fire to spread between floors.

The Real Thing: Essays on Making in the Modern World Tanya Harrod (Hyphen Press, 352pp, £20)

I love Tanya Harrod’s writing, and it’s great to have a collection of her articles, reviews and obituaries that give many insights into Robin Day, Eva Zeisel, Patrick Reyntiens and other 20th century designers. She’s mainly a crafts expert, so it’s not surprising that most pieces come from Crafts magazine, though she has also written for the TLS and the national press. Some things here would be really hard to track down, such as pieces for exhibition leaflets or obscure (to me anyway) titles such as Quilters’ Review. It’s packed with interesting reflections and asides (such as that textile designer Marianne Straub lived at Highsett, the Span estate in Cambridge), and I want to track down the Royal College of Art cookbook and master Paolozzi’s spaghetti al aglio. A unifying theme is ‘How can we be modern, yet be true to ourselves?’, and Harrod explains how the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy over the 30 years she has been writing has informed her thoughts.

On Display: 50 Posters Designed for the Hayward Gallery Catherine Flood & Hettie Judah (Hayward Publishing, 112pp, £30)

This large-format paperback lets you tear out and frame your choice of posters (beautifully printed on heavy glossy paper) so it’s a bit frustrating that the details on the back of each relates to the one following it. Unlike the National Theatre and the Whitechapel Gallery, who mostly stuck with one designer through the 1960s-80s, Hayward exhibition organisers could commission their own poster and catalogue (these were the days before marketing departments sought to establish a coherent brand). Most chose what one curator calls ‘an ethos of humane and humble modernism’, including Pentagram, Roger Huggett and Wim Crouwel. More surprising was the use of Barney Bubbles, who worked mainly for independent record labels. It’s good to be reminded of Theo Crosby’s 1973 show The Environment Game, which offered to explain ‘the theory, stakes, ploys and gambits which are manipulating and corroding our environment’ for a ticket price of 10p. Time for another of those?