Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson offers a rare glimpse into the lives of 14 renowned mid-century modern designers and architects by documenting some of their most personal and private spaces: their homes. Rich photography and short stories help the reader see a different side of these designers, and provides perspective to their work through their living spaces, which before this book had been scarcely documented.
The hardback version of Handcrafted Modern is a lovely book. The fabric-like paper that wraps it fits well with the contents, and the typography of the title helps it fit in with other books on the shelf, old and new alike. It is roughly 220 pages, and about an inch and a half thick. The pages are a heavy weight, and display the images beautifully. Looking at the layout of the book, it is easy to tell that care was taken to display the homes in an artful and deliberate manner.
Each section of the book covers a different mid-century designer. Williamson does not discriminate based on discipline of design by including architects, furniture designers, and artists, though many were active in all areas of mid-century modern design. A detailed look was given to the following designers: Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, Harry Bertoia, Russel Wright, Jens Risom, Eva Geisel, Vladimir Kagan, Irving Harper, Walter Gropius, Jerome & Evelyn Ackerman, Charles & Ray Eames, J.B. Blink, John Kapel, and Albert Frey.
Covering mainly the interiors of the homes, the author (who is also the photographer) takes it upon herself to document small details and intimacies. The coverage of each designer begins with a page-long piece of text briefly covering some of their achievements, but focusing mostly on more personal stories that the author uncovered while pursuing this project. There are charming anecdotes that you truly would not find anywhere else.
After this introduction, the reader moves on to around 12 pages of images uninterrupted by text. It is very refreshing, and allows one to focus on the tiny details captured by the film photography. The layout of the images varies greatly, creating a gallery feel, and the naturally-lit spaces in the photos look incredibly inviting.
Though very pleased with the quality of the book, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by the author. Given unbridled access to the amazing homes of our superstars, Leslie Williamson brings back only ~15 pictures of each. The subject of these photographs typically being close-up shots of lovingly placed details, you might find yourself leaving a section without the faintest clue of the floor plan, with the exterior of the home being an even greater mystery. I would not say this makes it a bad book, only that it leaves me wanting more. There is a definite bias to the artistic side in it’s coverage of these homes where I would have loved some hints of a documentarian approach.
So was it good?
Handcrafted Modern presents a brilliant concept in a beautiful and story-driven manner. There is something about looking at the cozy and comfortable homes of the people behind the slick lines and cleanliness of mid-century modern that gives them a bit more humanity. Though covering the details, I still didn’t feel like I had explored the houses in much depth. It felt like we had only been introduced.
If you’re looking for extensive coverage of these homes, especially their architecture, I would look elsewhere (though you won’t find much). If you’re just looking for a glimpse into the personal lives of Gropius, Nakashima, and the Eameses, you can find it here in beautiful, coffee table worthy format.