Life between the covers of the best interiors books

Carol O’Callaghan choses her pick of this year’s interior books and finds inspirational ideas and sensible solutions, from opulent extravaganzas to practical household tips, in a selection of gift-ready volumes
Life between the covers of the best interiors books

The author’s name is enough to make you pick up this title from the bookshop shelf, although it turns out to be two people, Jane Rockett and Lucy St George, who have penned Extraordinary Interiors as an extension of their online interiors shop, which stocks a most unusual, if not eclectic, selection of home interior products.

I have to say that I’m always a little sceptical of interior and design books with superlatives in the title, as it’s a subjective view whether or not an interior is extraordinary, especially when it comes to design and aesthetics, and something as personal as creating a home.

Rockett St George describe themselves as design junkies, which is apt in places as some of the rooms featured have overdosed somewhat on accessories and styling, offering what might be described as modern opulence.

Black and charcoal feature large. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a photo that doesn’t have a significant splash of black or darkest navy, which will ultimately date the book, and your décor, if you look to it to inform a decorating project.

What a pity they’ve opted to emphasise such distinctively current trends as this pushes the real and meaningful use of the book into the background.

I loved, for example, The Show Off in Style chapter where they guide you through how to display objects or plain old bric-a-brac. A book on decluttering might advise you to dispose of them in the interests of good energy flow, but the photography and instructions here have produced something quite arty, especially when ‘framed’ by a small bookcase or shelving unit.

Similarly, they have novel treatments when it comes to hanging art and photographs in groupings, making what they call, The Picture Wall, while their Cabinet of Curiosities takes mundane storing of homewares in a china cabinet and manifests them as a masterclass in how to style with charm and a touch of theatre.

There’s no doubt that, after 10 years of running an online shop, the authors have a well developed eye for a product and a canny ability to style them, so if you can get past the harsh black detailing in so much of the photography, this book ought not to go the charity shop after Christmas.

  • Extraordinary Interiors, By Rockett St George, Ryland & Peters €75. (Book cover, left and above, Christmas wrapping in style)

Mary’s Household Tips & Tricks, by Mary Berry, Penguin €23

Who hasn’t mourned the loss of Mary Berry from The Great British Bake Off, and her good, old-fashioned values when it comes to culinary matters, all delivered in an encouraging and maternal manner?

Now moving slightly sideways on the domestic front, she brings her practical approach to the topic of housekeeping and I, for one, am prepared to hang on every word uttered by the original domestic goddess.

She was born in an era when nothing was wasted, endured World War II rationing in the 1940s, and learned to look after things, as replacing them was often not always possible or affordable. She and her generation lived by the philosophy of respecting resources. Today we call it sustainability and think we invented it.

Everything she describes in the book has either been learned from her mother or the personal experience of running a house. Now in her 80s, she has clearly lived in a house for a long time and picked up a few tricks along the way.

This is not, I stress, the world of Kim and Aggie in How Clean is Your House, and their visitations to filth-infested kips, designed to shock and disgust us at home and make us revel in what appears, by comparison, to be the near perfection of our own home, even though it may not have seen the vacuum cleaner all month.

Mary Berry is the antithesis of this, where it’s all about care in doing those little jobs and doing them well. It’s the art and craft of housekeeping, if you will.

Never preachy, never bossy, you’re sure to abandon the ruthless housekeeping approach of Marie Kondo who, after all, made you throw out your bag of never-used charger cables, which you later wanted back when the camera battery and camping lamp were dead as dodos just before your holiday.

Mary Berry strikes the balance, is utterly practical, and with the Household Administration section, has produced a book which serves as a guide to running a home and not just cleaning it.

Now that the book is out, can the television show be far behind? Here’s hoping.

Ward Bennett by Phaidon €75

Have you heard of Ward Bennett? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Were he alive today, this architect, interior designer, furniture designer, and periodic fashion and jewellery designer, would be 100 years old this month.

As one of the cohort of American designers of the Mid-Century Modern period, his name does not carry the celebrity status associated with his contemporaries, which include Ray and Charles Eames.

Maybe it’s something to do with the fashionable proliferation of knock-offs of the latter’s work, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

He designed houses, most notably in The Hamptons, and was famous, back in the day, for regularly updating the interior of his apartment in New York’s famous Dakota Building, as well as designing furniture for Brickel/Eppinger and later Herman Miller.

By the late 1970s, he had designed over 150 chairs — a topic of interest informed by an on-going back problem, but with the silver lining that it produced some of the most significant developments in chair design of the period.

Among them was the University Chair for the Lyndon B Johnson Museum, of which Johnson approved we’re told, saying it resembled a cross between “a bar room chair and a courtroom chair, with a little bit of western saddle.”

Bennett agreed with this description, but the chair was also elegant, modern and unembellished, typical of the utilitarian furniture designed by him and his peers in the post war period.

With the publication of this first monograph of his work, which by definition assumes the reader has a somewhat developed knowledge of the subject already, its appeal will be to the serious design student, academic, and design collector.

It’s taken a long time for Ward Bennett to be acknowledged, but it’s a worthy start in acknowledging the contribution he made to American architecture, furniture and interior design.

The Way We Live By Stafford Cliff and Gilles De Chabaneix; Thames & Hudson €25

In rather typical Stafford Cliff style, The Way We Live is a pictorial record of his chosen subject, this time illustrating architectural and decorating styles from a variety of countries.

We observe living arrangements that range from stark simplicity to lavish embellishment, with each one a reflection of the ingenuity of its particular culture and environment.

As a world tour of interior design elements, it’s interesting to note how, in many cases, styles from very diverse cultures and locations mirror one another, perhaps a testament to humans having the same needs universally.

But there’s also a sense of how travel has influenced interiors, bringing with it the style of a particular country that is then adapted for use elsewhere, dependent on the materials and skills available, and needs unique to the location. Notably, we see English Georgian architecture transposed to Ireland, and details of it informing the architectural style of houses in the Americas.

Ultimately, the book, despite being largely text-free, is a reminder that the way we live is not completely defined by where we live.

Fifty Chairs That Changed The World by Design Museum Octopus Books €15

The title of the book does not convince this reviewer, even though I have a great interest in furniture design, and chairs in particular.

Certainly I’m not aware of any having changed the world, except, I imagine, the very first one ever made. What may be a more apt title for this publication is Fifty Chairs That Changed the Design World, and in that spirit it’s a worthwhile reference point for the most significant chairs designed and made over the last 150 years or so.

Using London’s Design Museum chair collection as its basis, the book lists and describes 50 examples, ranging from workaday models of the 19th century, to some of the more visually eclectic examples of the last 50 years, when design became a buzz-word for style and desirability.

During this latter period, there was unprecedented development in chair design, helped by consumer appetites and a maverick use of new materials. If nothing else, this book is a testament to many of these chairs, not only changing, but revolutionising the design world.

Art Deco Interiors By Patricia Bayer; Thames & Hudson €25

Art Deco must be one of the most recognisable styles of all times, characterised by geometric designs and the use of bold colour which flourished in the early decades of the 20th century across Europe and the US.

Bayer’s book is less an inspirational publication on how to achieve the look, and more a written documentary of its history, and its application to some of the most recognisable buildings in the world. Photography, both historic and modern, supports the author’s text, and helps to illustrate the extent and impact of this design movement which has probably been the most influential and enduring of the 20th century.

It’s also the one which has never been consigned to the design doldrums, even trumping the current trend for Mid-Century Modern whose utilitarian design aspect put it out of favour in the 1980s and ’90s.

Written by an art historian, Art Deco Interiors certainly has a touch of the academic approach in the book’s composition, but nonetheless is accessible, while ultimately paying homage to the decorative arts.

70s Style & Design By Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop; Thames & Hudson €30

Examining key aspects of the style and design of a particular decade probably has more value than trying to account for it within a precise period of time, which means that there’s a great deal in this publication about what came before, and how that influenced the ’70s.

Nonetheless, what makes this book stand-up is a combination of really striking photography and illustrations, and a pleasing lack of emphasis on frayed flares and platform shoes.

Inevitably, names like Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood find their way in here, with fashion making a significant contribution to the content. But so too do other design high points— such as Habitat and the idea of flat-packed furniture, plus reclamation of industrial materials, the rise of DIY, and the influence of Pop Art. This is all set against a background of high colour that we, forty something years later, have revived after the boom years of white and minimalism. In that context the book offers us something that is at once both nostalgic and refreshing.

Woman as Design By Stephen Bayley; Octopus Books €60

This large, softly padded tome might suggest — as far as any rectangular object can — aspects of the female body, in keeping with its title. Knowing the author to be a man, I expected an emphasis on the physical areas most likely to interest the male, but as a female reviewer I hoped to learn how the shape and workings of woman’s body has influenced and informed design.

It turned out there was plenty of the former, such as images of Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts and Beth Ditto in the near nip, but little of the latter, except for the subject of bras, which he describes as the ‘industrialisation of the breast’. I see his point, though, as the female breast has certainly been moulded, lifted, enhanced and put on show.

Somewhat more bizarre images of cow udders, primitive sculpture, dolls, chastity belts and nuns on scooters seem strangely out of step, to create incoherence in the narrative, but on the upside, there’s a wealth of imagery and information on how the design of the female form appears in the literal sense and is interpreted in design, and that for me is the interesting bit. The more sensational aspects are just a tad too voyeuristic for my tastes.

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