December 13, 2020

Two Must-Read Art and Design Books

“Anni and Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal” by Nicholas Fox Weber. New York: Phaidon, $150. 512 pages, 750 illustrations (350 color).

There have been monographs before about Josef Albers (1888-1976) and his wife Anni (1899-1994), but this is a book about them both. And they are the perfect couple for such treatment with lives, opinions, tastes, and art—his paintings and her textiles—that were so closely interdependent. The pair met as students in the early 1920s at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar, then in Dessau, and finally in Berlin. But soon Josef would be named a Master and Anni would be the first to be awarded a degree from the school’s weaving workshop. They would follow the school to Berlin, where Josef (by then the longest faculty member) would be key in the decision to close the school rather than succumb to Nazi interference. The closest of their many Bauhaus friends had been Marcel Breuer and Paul Klee. They accepted faculty positions then, at the recommendation of Philip Johnson, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where they would teach and work for 16 years, Josef experimenting with abstract geometries in painting and printmaking, Anni weaving similar geometries including innovative strips of jute, cellophane, and aluminum. Friends and fellow artists they met there included John Cage, Merce Cunning­ham, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, and another talented couple, Charles and Ray Eames. In 1950 they moved to Connecticut; Josef had been asked to head the department of design at Yale University and Anni was being given a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York. Here they would spend the rest of their lives. Josef would write his major book, “Interaction of Color,” in 1963, and Anni world write hers, “On Weaving,” in 1965. This handsome double biography is an authoritative source of information not only about two of early modernism’s most inventive and influential artists but also about one of the most exciting and formative periods of modernism itself.

“The V&A Book of Color in Design,” edited by Tim Travis. New York: Thames & Hudson, $40. 304 pages, 450 color illustrations. 

London’s Victoria & Albert Museum was founded in 1852 as the Muse­um of Manufacturers, to hold the objects that had been displayed in the Crystal Palace of the year before. It has grown to be the world’s largest collection of decorative arts, with roughly 23 million artifacts spanning 5,000 years. These include furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass, metalwork, wallpaper, costumes, jewelry, prints, drawings, and photography. These are collections that have been exam­ined in many ways, and now by color—and not just Newton’s “Roy G. Biv” basics of red to violet but also white, gray, black, brown, turquoise, and pink. The objects are further examined in light of those colors’ historic uses, characters, and symbolism. Yellow can connote not only cheer and happiness but also cowardice. White, a symbol of purity and the color worn by the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, has also been, in many parts of the world, the color of mourning. And red is the color of danger, lipstick, magic shoes, rubies, and the Devil. Color being such a fundamental factor of interiors, it is hard to imagine a designer who will not derive great delight and perhaps new insight from this fascinating and, needless to say, colorful survey. Important contributors have been members of the studio Here Design, whose previous books include “Spectrum: Heritage Patterns and Colors,” while editor Tim Travis is a curator of the V&A’s Word & Image Department.

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