by Dominic Bradbury. Yale University Press, November 2018. 479 p. ill. ISBN 9780300238341 (h/c), $85.00.
Reviewed January 2019
Graphically stunning, Dominic Bradbury has prepared an encyclopedic work that has much to offer the scholar as well as the dilettante. The book is divided into two main sections, with the first concentrating on decorative arts and the second on architecture and interiors. The author’s introduction to the book synthesizes the key components of the modern movement, stressing its social and political dimensions.
Each chapter within “Media & Masters” begins with an introduction followed by one or more essays addressing major styles within the art form. Bradbury identifies between six and fifteen iconic designers under each medium and showcases their key works with full color illustrations. A number of designers (Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit Rietveld) are represented in the furniture section as well as in “Houses & Interiors.” Most of the designers that were selected are highly recognizable, though a few lesser-known figures have been included. The brief text accompanying the images provides context and succinctly but accurately summarizes the contribution to the modern movement.
Part two of the book, again beginning with an introduction and essays, presents domestic work from an international array of major architects. The sharp photographs include carefully chosen views and details. The focus appears to be on interiors and furnishings. This half of the book and even parts of the first half (such as furniture) would benefit from the inclusion of actual drawings.
Most of the examples in Bradbury’s book, while iconic, are textbook. While that can be helpful and may be the author’s intent, it is also limiting to those seeking greater depth and a broader understanding of the subject. The author has selected the Villa Mairea to depict Aalto’s soft modernism with his love of nature and focus on natural materials. Might not Aalto’s own house have worked equally well? Frank Lloyd Wright is included and Fallingwater chosen to portray how the building responds to its site. Could Kentuck Knob have been substituted? To be fair, Bradbury has again included several less well-known examples like Bentley Wood by Serge Chermayeff and Willow Road in London by Erno Goldfinger.
There is an illustrated “A-Z of Designers, Architects & Manufacturers,” which is useful to look up a specific designer quickly, but the bibliography is only alphabetical by author.
Essential Modernism does have much to offer and for the most part lives up to its title. However, the inclusion of floor plans or drawings of furniture would serve to enhance its appeal, especially to the scholarly community. Changes like a bibliography organized by subject and use of more varied examples would make this a standout title.