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On the Shelf: Book Report - Inside information

Nonie Niesewand steals a few trade secrets from leading-edge designers and architects
Returning home after the summer holidays, you notice how shabby the place has got. Plumping up the cushions and throwing out the junk mail isn't going to turn it into House Beautiful. That's why book publishers release in autumn what used to be called coffee-table books to give us an idea of what's going on behind designer-label closed doors.

Not a lot, disappointingly. Interior design has gone through the pale and interestingly beige stage, the touchy-feely sensuous phase and the eclectic phase, which meant nobody knew what was going on. Now the opinionated and talented design set are holding back until the 21st century to be directional. Better to curl up in your armchair with a book about Patrick Cox or Georgina von Etzdorf to find out how they turned themselves into designer labels. And if you haven't replaced your coffee table with a magazine rack yet (all the British designers are knocking them up) you could always find room on it for two architectural tomes with fashionable titles, Sweden and Architecture and the Environment.

Grand Illusions, New Decorating

by Nick Ronald and David Roberts

Ebury Press, pounds 19.99

This is subtitled "Technique, Ideas & Inspiration for Creating a Fresh Look" and written by Nick Ronald and David Roberts, whose Grand Illusions shop in south London has, I trust, better contents than their book. A full-page colour photo of olive oil or pebbles, linen pillows in a stack, candles or a single green leaf in a vase is less inspiring to most home-makers than the Ikea catalogue.

Recipes for DIY are mostly impractical, too. To put up their "Aged Wooden Shelf" you first have to fix tongue-and-groove panels to the walls with battens, a joinery job dismissed without any instructions. If you want to set wet concrete in a slab around some night candles that will have gone out before the cement dries, or tie gingham bows on chairs and curtain rods, and arrange pebbles in big circles on table tops, then this manual is a must-have.

"With passion, the must-haves of today will become the heirlooms of tomorrow," the authors insist. At times this psychobabble becomes quite Dadaist: "passion herbs sunflowers radiant sea luminous sand fish sunkissed" is their unpunctuated introduction to Mediterranean style. French interior designer Andree Putman once helpfully observed that if you have to ask what style is, then you don't have any.


by Janne Faulkner

Allen & Unwin, pounds 24.99

An interior designer who has worked in Australia for 30 years, Janne Faulkner is a real pro. She compiles useful questions which you should ask yourself before decoration, then she gives the answers based around individual houses and apartments that she has ditzed up. Even if she is introducing a palatial pool-deck house in Sydney and you have a two-up- two-down in Tooting Bec, the information in those checklists is surprisingly applicable. Had you thought of drawing up a list of everything you need to store? Or finding out which way the front room faces before choosing a paint colour?

There are practical tips on lights, storage, upholstery, windows, wall and floor treatments and good-looking, efficient kitchen planning. The downside is that some of the schemes look dated. In the fashionable world of interiors a decade is a very long time, and she spans three. Power- dressed rooms with clunky furniture, gilded and flounced with fabrics and outsize bouquets aren't popular. She knows it, too, which is why the more recent schemes, particularly the informal ones, are better. Not enough to justify the book's price though.

Cutting Edge: Alberto Alessi, Georgina von Etzdorf, Patrick Cox, Tibor Kalman

Thames and Hudson, pounds 9.95

Alessi, The Design Factory

Academy Editions, pounds 22.50

Thames & Hudson's Cutting Edge mini-series profiles designers who matter in the Nineties. Arguably the first three names in the series - Alberto Alessi, Georgina von Etzdorf and Patrick Cox - do matter, although I worry about the fourth, graphic designer Tibor Kalman whose Colors magazine for Benetton seems brash in the Nineties. The Queen, tiara'd and Star Gartered, sashed and lacquered on the front cover of his new book, was colour-corrected and computer- tweaked to make her look Sri Lankan. As Queen of the Commonwealth - and jolly keen on it too - she probably wouldn't mind, but as an attention- grabbing device it's a tad sad. Georgina von Etzdorf's wicked scarves in velvets and silks triggered that whole fashion thing of scarves as entire outfits (see Tatler's July issue). Hardworking text on textiles makes this a good read. The Wannabe who upped and went, big-time, Patrick Cox is responsible for more walking wounded than Ypres with his vertiginous footwear that the whole world wants.

Good to see that Alberto Alessi is included, because his late Eighties monograph by Academy Editions has also been re-issued and yes, I admit it, I wrote one of the essays. Alberto looks quite like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland as he pops out of a huge stainless-steel teapot on the cover of the second edition. A new introduction by Christopher Frayling, rector at the Royal College of Art, is witty: "Some people say less is more but we say Alessi is more." Frayling believes that the challenge of the next decade will be to narrow the intellectual and aesthetic gap between the avant-garde and the mainstream. Who better to meet that challenge than Alberto Alessi who turned himself into a household name with some weird but workmanlike wares?

Sweden: 20th Century Architecture IV

Edited by Claes Caldenby, Joran Lindvall and Wilfried Wang

Prestel, pounds 55

As Sweden breaks out of the cultural archipelago of Scandinavia to become the hottest cold place in the world, the Swedish editors explain that architecturally it has always been at the forefront of European design. From the classicism of the Twenties and Thirties to the softened welfare-state variant of the Forties, when Sweden was a role-model for Europe, illustrations and well-annotated text reveal how cement and glass, steel and wood captured the funky functionalism better than shag pile, bent plywood, saunas and stripped wood replicas of Gustavian style.

John Pawson

New edition Manuel Pijoan

GG, pounds 21 (pounds 19.50 at Triangle bookshop, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1)

Architectural monographs rarely interest non-specialists but the Gustavo Gili series on international mega-stars provides a rich source of ideas. It has just re-issued its monograph on John Pawson to show his work for Calvin Klein, Jigsaw, an installation within an ancient Essex barn and his own Notting Hill house.

If you think minimalism means putting everything into the skip that can't fit in a cupboard, buy this book. Pawson's kitchen units, now in production with a Belgium company, are shown too, but don't expect taps. Water pours from an elegant spout operated by two levers under the work top. Rooms emptied of clutter are filled with light - and surface planes painted in five shades of white bounce it back.

It is a slim volume because, as a minimalist, he doesn't like wall-to- wall words cluttering up pure white pages. Every picture tells a story and there is a brilliant explanation of the aesthetic in a foreword by the late Bruce Chatwin, an admirer of Pawson.

Architecture and the Environment: Bioclimatic Building Design

by David Lloyd Jones

Laurence King, pounds 45

When economists talk like biologists to explain business ventures as micro or macro culture with clusters and organic growth, and architects use bioclimatic to describe building design which is inspired by nature, it's time to study the form. Holistic buildings that don't impact upon environment are reviewed with a foreword by Tadao Ando. Patient sleuthwork explains what makes an air-conditioned office block in Zimbabwe and a Japanese temple by Benson & Forsyth "optimise" - rather than exploit - the environment. All the buzzwords are listed at the back, from Acid Rain to Reed Beeds, Sick Building Syndrome to Wind Towers