I am both an ardent and determined pedestrian. And living in New York hasn’t altered this one jot. Last evening, channelling all my inner Walter Benjamin, I set off on foot to the launch of Pat Kirkham’s (formerly of De Montfort and now at BGC) latest work of genius, History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400-2000 (Yale University Press).
My journey downtown to The Century Association, a private literary club founded in 1892, was itself something of an event. I hit Fifth Avenue at rush hour and as dusk fell, which made for a heady and intoxicating combination. The air was filled with NYPD whistles, honking yellow cabs, the aroma from pretzel sellers, all of it wrapped up in an artificial glow from the lights of those shimmering ‘cathedrals of consumption’: Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Barneys, Trump Tower, Rockefeller Center, etc, etc.
My destination, The Century Association, was restrained by comparison and positively creaked with the weight of erudition and learning. And the book that was being launched was also weighty. Almost 700 pages in length, spanning some six centuries and being global in scope, it represents an ambitious project. The editors (Kirkham and Weber) likened its writing to ‘eating an elephant’ and claimed that it was ten years in the making. As you’d expect from a book on the subject of design, it has high production values and is pitched at an undergraduate audience as a survey text replete with colour-coded sections and bite-sized passages. My own experience of teaching introductory classes on the history of design is limited but I am assured that this textbook has been much anticipated and fulfils a great need, being heralded as a landmark publication to rival Janson. Worth the walk? Most definitely.