Trade up to Tiffany delights

The Elements of Design
January 9, 2004

Almost every day at lunchtime, I am forced to watch Trading Up followed by Bargain Hunt on BBC1. I do not want to see perky Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister daily rising to the challenge of transporting couples from one undesirable house to another; or see the bow-tied Tim Wonnocott bounce excitedly around a Poole Pottery mustard pot worth £15. But there is no choice: these shows are on the TV screen at my gym.

Why do I get so needled by these programmes? Architecture and design objects are public obsessions - this must surely be a step forward, mustn't it? Or, are these shows, like the exercise bike I pedal away on, leading nowhere?

Both programmes are obviously popular, and reflect today's obsession with building and design. Trading Up is about the desire for a better home, a place not only comfortable but sparkling with architectural life. Bargain Hunt is about acquiring all the things that can be stuffed into that home space. And both series are about having the directing hand of specialists in acquiring a good building and appropriate chattels. But even though the presenters have segments dealing with houses and objects of historical interest and quality, very little of the information sticks with you. It is similar to watching quiz shows such as Mastermind or University Challenge - you rarely absorb any of the answers into your general knowledge.

To access expert specialists in architecture and design, from a source that is sustainable and not transitory like television, and to obtain information that satisfies, I would recommend a glossy pair of volumes published by Mitchell Beazley. The first, The Elements of Style: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Architectural Details , came out in 1996 and can be found on almost every arts reference shelf. Its general editor Stephen Calloway put together a comprehensive visual survey, period by period, feature by feature, of the styles that influenced the interiors of British and American domestic architecture. The second volume, and the one under review, is The Elements of Design , which has just been published. It is an encyclopaedia with concise and comprehensive text and more than 3,000 images on the decorative arts and furniture.

The format is fairly standard, with 14 large chapters progressing from 1400 to 2000. The greatest emphasis is on 20th-century styles, presumably because the pickings are greater for these years and because of the area's popularity today. In fact, the six chapters on the 20th century comprise one-third of the book. And it is interesting how the editors divide the century: "Early modernism", 1900-30; "Art deco", 1910-39; "Modernism", 1920-49; "Contemporary", c.1945-60; "Space age", 1960-69; and "Postmodernism", 1970-2000. The final three chapters were undoubtedly tricky to categorise as there are few standard art-historical subdivisions for the past 50 years. For example, you would classify Tiffany as the most famous American art nouveau glassmaker; but it sounds odd to admire David Mellor as the best British space-age metalworker. But encyclopaedias must catalogue and categorise, and the historical periodisation of this encyclopaedia works successfully.

The chapters themselves are subdivided in the following way: introduction, furniture, ceramics, glass, silver and metalwork, and textiles, with a few add-on variations for each period (for example, "Modernism" has a section on lighting). The sections on historic revivals, covering c. 1820 to 1900, logically break the period into the revival first (Gothic, rococo and so on) before stepping into the repeating subdivisions.

Seventeen experts have contributed, and some have been assigned a period. Alan Powers, for example, is the modern specialist covering all subjects of the period. His subsection on glass paints an especially comprehensive picture and includes a spread on British glass, an area not usually given much notice on the international scene. But this is balanced by his discussions on the new purity of forms coming out of the Bauhaus and important developments in Scandinavia and Italy.

Other contributors are specialists in a specific area, such as the doyenne of textile historians Mary Schoeser, who spreads fluidly across renaissance, baroque, rococo and neo-classical. Schoeser uses standard division headings in the baroque section as "exoticism" and "meandering vines" alongside untypical but winning descriptive headings such as "energy", which aptly describes flame-stitch.

The strong visual impact of The Elements of Design is due to the seven diligent women on the picture-research team. Each spread includes no fewer than ten to 15 images fitted around the text. Notable examples are always illustrated, albeit in small format. But the quality is high and crisp.

Especially relevant and enjoyable are the many archival illustrations. For the earlier periods, pattern books have been extremely useful. Rococo furniture, for example, is supplemented by a detail of a plate from L'Art du Menuisier by Andre-Jacop Roubo showing a pattern for making the structure for a chair en cabriolet . Or details from paintings: the green glass goblets of Dutch Berkemeyers and Roemers, with their stubbly blobs of prunts for decoration and added grip, are depicted in a detail from a 17th-century still life by Pieter Claesz.

Practical, beautiful, comprehensive - this encyclopaedia tops any TV design programme for entertainment. Pity it is too big to fit on my exercise bike handlebars.

Neil Bingham is an architectural and design historian.

The Elements of Design: The Development of Design and Stylistic Elements from the Renaissance to the Postmodern

Editor - Noël Riley with Patricia Bayer
Publisher - Mitchell Beazley
Pages - 544
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 1 84000 431 2

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