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A common sense that finds the extra in the ordinary

Small Things Considered Why There Is No Perfect Design Henry Petroski Alfred A. Knopf: 292 pp., $25 * Inventing Modern Growing Up With X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins John H. Lienhard Oxford University Press: 292 pp., $28 * The Origin of Things Edited by Thimo te Duits NAI Publishers, Rotterdam: 280 pp., $24.50 * The Substance of Style Virginia Postrel HarperCollins: 238 pp., $24.95 * Where Stuff Comes From How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are Harvey L. Molotch Routledge: 324 pp., $27.50

September 28, 2003|Jessica Helfand | Jessica Helfand is a member of the graduate design faculty at the Yale School of Art and the author of "Reinventing the Wheel."

The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that it requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious, and yet it is this very obviousness, this ordinariness, that has long been a topic of inquiry in design criticism. This thing that American novelist Walker Percy called "everydayness" has everything to do with the performance of things around us -- which, come to think of it, is really quite extraordinary. Ordinary things have long held their appeal in literature as catalysts for the familiar, but where do the things around us come from? Our lives are filled with myriad objects that collectively inform our actions, reactions and interactions: from cars to computers, toothbrushes to telephones, doorknobs to diaper pails, steering wheels to shopping carts. The list is inexhaustible, and each item's unique provenance is perhaps equally so. Arguably, to deconstruct such objects is one way to better understand the world around us. How do they respond to and reveal our personal narratives? How does their design tell us about who we are or who we might become? And why are such questions worthy of our attention or even relevant at this point in history?

Several new books on the design of everyday things are attempting to answer some of these questions, offering proof, if nothing else, that the obvious can never be analyzed enough. Written not by designers but by a historian, an economist, engineers and a social scientist, these books offer a panoramic view of design set against the backdrop of social, industrial and cultural evolution over the last century. As such, they bring a curious anthropological focus to design, a perspective that, despite its refreshing objectivity, occasionally suffers from a kind of blurred distance. Looking from the outside in, they view design as preternaturally flawed, subject to fluctuating markets and consequent shifts in personal taste, economic stability and technological change.

Had these books been written by designers or even design theorists, they likely would have looked, too, from the inside out: In the practice of design, it is this kind of penetrating scrutiny that is equally if not more critical. (Legendary designer Charles Eames once said that recognizing a need is the primary condition for design. He never said it was the only condition.) While they do much to locate design in culture, these books do little to illuminate the culture of design: not the culture of oversized celebrity monographs or branded merchandise so much as an underlying ideology that demands of its makers both a macro and more critical micro view, mirror perspectives that give rise to the deeply considered, magically transformed -- and ultimately designed -- thing.

The champion of everyday things and the ingenuity by which they become manifest is Henry Petroski, who, as he did in "The Pencil" and "The Evolution of Useful Things," again demonstrates his indefatigable capacity for explaining the minutiae of our world in magnificent detail. In his latest book, "Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design," he shares his trenchant observations about the social, formal -- and in some cases, unpredictable -- reasons why things are as they are, or aren't as they should be, or might be, or used to be, or could be, or might never be. Along the way, he stops to examine just about everything: the kitchen sink, the doorknob, the flashlight, the potato peeler and the history of the phone keypad -- here offering a compelling rationale for bringing back the rotary dial's alphanumeric combinations, numbers like BUtterfield-8 that typified the glorious age before touch-tone. Consider MU 5-1234: "The MU indicated ... that the telephone being called was located in the Murray Hill section of [New York City]," the author explains, "which is the area where the Public Library now sits, and before that a reservoir holding water brought in by the Croton aqueduct." His comprehensive intellectual reach is made more accessible by a wealth of personal anecdotes, a macro-micro balancing act combining authoritative rhetoric with a kind of amiable rant. Petroski is the John McPhee of design writing: Who else could painstakingly trace the evolution of the Dixie cup so unerringly, without missing a single note?

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