This article is part of our latest Design special report, about new creative pathways shaped by the pandemic.
For more than a decade, the architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri has methodically combed Queens neighborhoods, fascinated by the range of what he describes as “levels of exhibitionism” in residences equipped with asymmetrical roof spikes and crimson-speckled facades. His book All the Queens Houses: An Architectural Portrait of New York’s Largest and Most Diverse Borough (Jovis, $22.99, 272 pp.) documents how Queens subdivision dwellers vie for attention with aqua awnings, watermelon stucco pigments and driveways patterned in sine waves. Simulated cracks slash across brickwork on townhouse chimney stacks, and mansards seem to be melting. He gently chides a “dead cat” crevice between homes that would be “impossible to clean” and a balcony on spindly stilts that has “the smooth surfaces and floating quality of a hydraulic car lift.” But he largely avoids judgment while devising formal titles for dwellings like Pixel Ghost, Cerulean Icebox, Minoan Makeover and Samurai Helmet House.
Travel diaries, confessional correspondence and construction site reports serve as eye-opening sources for Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect (Chronicle Books, $32.50, 240 pp.), by the historian Victoria Kastner. In 1904, Morgan became the first female licensed architect in California. She is best remembered for collaborating with William Randolph Hearst on designs for megalomaniacal castles, in styles from Bavarian to Art Deco. But she designed hundreds of more public-spirited buildings, including headquarters for charities run by Chinese American and Japanese American communities. She recycled 13th-century stonework carved for Spanish Cistercian monks and shards of French medieval glass rescued from cathedrals bombed during World War I. She climbed scaffolding while wearing long wool skirts, concealing a sensible pair of men’s trousers. When male contractors’ work displeased her, she would make them tear it down and start over. Although she rarely talked to reporters or otherwise sought publicity, she built a reputation and earnings substantial enough to allow her to give away real estate and cars to her loved ones. When the workload slowed, she headed overseas via cargo vessels, “exiting one boat and booking passage on another almost as if she were catching buses,” Ms. Kastner writes. Morgan barely paused to eat, and so even the equally tireless Hearst urged her to try relaxing. “You wouldn’t treat an engine the way you treat yourself,” he wrote to the architect.
Inventions that calamitously failed or quietly faded into obscurity are brought back to life in Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects (Reaktion Books, $40, 390 pp.). A team of nearly 80 scholars wrote the 85 alphabetical entries, from arsenic-laced wallpaper that poisoned Victorian families to exploding zeppelins. Among the once-humdrum goods that have become collectibles are ashtrays, paper airplane tickets, slide rules and vertical filing cabinets. And there are technologies now predominantly confined to museums, like pneumatic tubes for delivering mail, and pyrophones, musical instruments with piano keys controlling miniature burners inside glass tubes that emit melancholic whispers. The book also profiles follies that never reached the market: anti-gravitation underclothing designed to keep wearers aloft and telegraph mechanisms that relied on snails slithering around zinc bowls to tap out letters.
Since the 1980s, the Japanese textile maker Nuno has been finding out what happens when fabrics are concocted out of yam paste, plantain stalks, newspapers or audiotapes. NUNO: Visionary Japanese Textiles (Thames & Hudson, $75, 380 pp.), by the company’s design director, Reiko Sudo, devotes full-bleed spreads to wares with names as memorable as Lunatic Fringe and Scrapyard Iron Plates. Motifs and textures are inspired by Italian baking tins, Turkish limestone walls and tropical undergrowth. Ms. Sudo explains how much laborious salt-shrinking and clamp-dyeing goes into the shagginess and sci-fi metallic sheens. The knitted fabric known as Hairball “is steamed, trimmed, steamed again, brushed, shaved, steamed and brushed yet again, until the fur comes alive,” she writes. And Nuno workers have the means to channel their aggressions by creating heirloom fibers “roasted over burners, dissolved with acid, boiled and stewed, ripped with blades and pulled apart.”