Books: Design and Decoration: From the bath to the bazaar

BOOKS ON decoration and design seldom get reviewed, in part because their primary purpose is to beguile through pictures - indulgent and somehow suspect. But that's precisely why such books delight; people are largely absent from their photographs, allowing unnatural perfection and a dreamy, melancholy atmosphere to prevail. Here are some treats for the eye.

Even in Roman times, the bathroom was a place of pleasure - which was why the early Christian Church associated washing with moral turpitude and tried to ban it. The desire to beautify scenes of hygiene has remained strong, as the bathrooms of Pope Clement VII in the Vatican (Pompeii-style frescos), Napoleon (neoclassical murals) and Jayne Mansfield (wall-to- wall pink shag-pile carpet and a heart-shaped bath) testify. They can be found in The Book of the Bath by Francoise de Bonneville (Thames & Hudson, pounds 25), a celebration in paintings, luscious photographs and words of the evolution of baths public and private.

For those who thrill to the romance of the Islamic orient, The Bazaar by Walter M Weiss and Kurt- Michael Westermann (Thames & Hudson, pounds 32) allows you to wallow in a plethora of fezes, camels, men in long robes and dappled light. Linger over picturesque shopping from Kairouan in Tunisia to Aleppo in Syria, Samarkand and Isfahan, especially traditional trades and crafts - from lute and dagger makers to perfumers and calligraphers.

There are no traditional hunting trophies in the East African decor of Safari Style by Tim Beddow and Natasha Burns (Thames & Hudson, pounds 24.95). Instead, delectably furnished lodges and thatched camps give the flavour of an extended travel brochure. Most of East Africa was colonised between 1895 and 1915, and an Edwardian flavour can still be detected in the preponderance of wood, leather and linens, along with up-to-date ethnic style: solar- powered lamps fashioned from ostrich eggs, woven banana-leaf ceilings, and even the improbable-sounding "Masai Versailles".

The airy black-and-white interiors depicted in Irish Houses and Gardens: from the archives of Country Life by Sen O'Reilly (Aurum, pounds 35) seem impossibly grand and formal. They include not just the Georgian mansions of the Anglo- Irish - the demolition of which inspired the foundation of the Irish Georgian Society - but examples of Irish Gothic, as well as Lissadell, home of Yeats's friends the Gore-Booths; now as then, "The light of evening, Lissadell/ Great windows open to the south". The Irish Home by Ianthe Ruthven (Collins & Brown, pounds 25) contains some of the same settings but, in addition, cosy cottages, clutter and colour.

Alistair McAlpine has variously collected African beads, stuffed animals, rustic Australian furniture and American Expressionists. In Collecting & Display (by Alistair McAlpine and Cathy Giangrande; Conran Octopus, pounds 30), he revels in the collections of others (teeth extracted by Peter the Great of Russia, displays of weapons at Chevening). It contains inventive ways of storing and showing treasures and sections on conservation.

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff (Thames & Hudson, pounds 32) is a grand idea somewhat overdesigned. Cliff lays out pages of intoxicating and mostly anonymous designs from 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century pattern-books - from butterknives to pagoda jelly moulds and rococo chairbacks.

Among edifying reference books, 20th-Century Architecture by Jonathan Glancey (Carlton Books, pounds 29.95) is an entertaining tour around 400 of the century's seminal buildings; each one is given a page to itself, with a big picture and a short history and appraisal. Glancey includes buildings he considers bad, as well as favourites from Lutyens to Le Corbusier, the Empire State Building to the Peter Jones department store in London. Contemporary World Architecture by Hugh Pearman (Phaidon, pounds 59.95) is a thumping building-block of a book that in 13 chapters and more than 1,000 pictures rounds up a huge slice of significant architecture from the past 30 years. Packed with unfamiliar and photogenic buildings, it boasts a briskly informative text. For a broader overview, Nikolaus Pevsner's The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (pounds 25) has been newly overhauled by John Fleming and Hugh Honour. Pevsner addicts can turn to the latest volume, London 4: North by Bridget Cherry and Pevsner (Penguin pounds 30).

The rickshaw is an astonishingly resilient means of transport: it was invented in Japan in the 1870s to compete with tardy sedan chairs and costly carriages, and has persisted into the motorised age. Even so it is a feat to fill a book with different varieties - from 12 cities - as Tony Wheeler and Richard L 'Anson do in Chasing Rickshaws (Lonely Planet, pounds 19.99). The most joyous are the painted ones in Dhaka, the rarest, the eight remaining red rickshaws of Hong Kong.

In Country and Modern (Quadrille, pounds 20) Dinah Hall argues the case for rural minimalism. Her model is the austere medieval monastery, castle or barn - where light, and bare walls dominate. She also espouses the delights of "shackology": "deep within each one of us lives the spirit of a primitive hut dweller".