Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rolling Over in the Dovers: Architecture, Cheap and Good!

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
 Back in the ‘80s I remember applying for a position that seemed promising as a graphic designer for Dover Publications. As I recollect, perhaps incorrectly, I dutifully trooped down some side street off Broadway to Dover’s New York city office, huffed up multiple floors of stairs, and ended up in this truly dusty and fusty office that seemed like a throwback to the late 1800s, with plank flooring the color of pitch from years of ground in dirt and tottering stacks of paper galleys that were the stuffing of actual books. Not a cubicle partition in sight.
Problematically, I hadn’t realized that Dover was not a publisher-from-scratch, but rather, a niche marketer for quick cheap copies of out-of-print though valuable old monographs. You know: the kinds of books that intelligent aliens seeking to understand human culture might find informative, like Serlio on Domestic Architecture, or Hugh Ferriss on The Power of Buildings.
"Palladio? Alberti? Mere punters! Ragazzi!"-- Serlio
Serlio's notion of a vacation villa in Vicenza...and this is not Vicenza, Kansas, Dorothy!
Hayward and Blanche Cirker started Dover in 1941, initially producing affordable re-issues of anything from classic literature to science theory to snazzy clip art collections of the cut-and-paste era, to coloring books based on, say, William Blake’s stained glass designs. They even convinced Albert Einstein to agree to a reissue The Principle of Relativity, which became a bestseller for Dover (despite Einstein’s protestations that his text was outdated). They created one of the earliest large-scale mail order book operations, as well as the prototype for what is now commonly called the trade paperback (economically sized for production as well as shipping costs).
Take Dover’s resurrection of Serlio, who contributed significant Renaissance-era treatises on architecture (and a fabulous typeface), but always seemed overshadowed by Alberti and Palladio. Those Renaissance treatises offered measurable plans and facades from Roman monuments, ultimately influencing the classical revivals that directly shaped Washington...or virtually every major post office or municipal library built between 1900 and the 1950s in America.
Jones' version of, How did he know already about Pepto-Bismol pink?
Dover Books on ornament did not skimp on color, even if blocky gold ink was required for, say, Historic Ornament and Design in Full Color: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, or Ornament and Design of the Alhambra. The Alhambra collator was the famous British design theorist, Owen Jones, known for his encyclopedic Grammar of Ornament (1868). Regardless of the fact that some of his 'historic' imitations were slightly fanciful or 'off,' Jones influenced design reformers like William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts patterns flattened nature’s designs and paved the way to modern painting, some would say. When these compendiums first came out in the mid-1800s they were the equivalent of MTV or the Internet. Sure, engraving had already operated for centuries as the sole transmitter of visual ideas other than the brains of craftsmen, but advances in color printing added a wholly new dimension to design, affecting thousands of ornament-encrusted Victorian confections.  The whole notion of ‘ornamenting’ or cladding a building’s exterior and interior by decorating its ‘skin’ in historical knockoffs fueled the pivotal argument between traditionalists (Victorians) and revolutionary early modernists, with their minimalist aesthetic.
If your tastes incline towards the sheer power of massive, plain-faced modernist volumes rather than decorated boxes, check out Dover’s version of Hugh Ferriss’ The Power of Buildings 1920-1950: A Master Draftsman’s Record.  During the peak of his career in the 30s and 40s, Ferriss crafted a firm reputation as a ‘delineator,’ providing passionate renderings. Today, these can be pumped out dispassionately by computer programs like AutoCAD or Revit. There is sexiness and mystery in his foggy, chiaroscuro versions of New York’s terracotta tiled Woolworth Building, or the setback art deco masterpiece, the Daily News Building, or Rockefeller Center and the United Nations in their fetal stages. His thickly textured lines practically threaten to flake graphite or charcoal off the printed page and onto your lap. The originals are archived at Columbia University, and an annual prize in his name singles out individuals for excellence in rendering. Although trained as an architect, Ferriss made images of buildings that ‘sold’ modernism to the client and the public, in magazines like Harper’s or Vanity Fair, before commentators and critics made the structures iconic.  Cultural maven Dan Okrent once noted that Ferriss’ futuristic renderings of skyscrapers and grandiose projects in development, like the 1939 World’s Fair Trilon and Perisphere, influenced a generation of modernist more than any single architect, despite the fact that Ferriss never designed a single building of note.  Essentially, Ferriss’ drawings put the Gotham in Gotham City, Batman’s hometown.
From the Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferriss
They inspired the cities that animate Lucas’ Star Wars franchise. Disney's Epcot Center owes a lot to Ferriss' version of the Metropolis of Tomorrow. Ferriss’ introduction not only scampers through three decades of relevant architectural progress, but reads like a literary time capsule that captures his fascination with what was to become modern, or cutting edge. Ironically, his quaint, stiff rhetoric shows just how hard his generation was searching for the proper language to describe the new architecture.
Thanks for these and other rambles through Western civ, Dover! You may not be the Library of Congress, but you're certainly helping us hold onto some of our cultural heritage.

Karen L. Mulder passed on Dover’s need for quick and dirty graphics, taking a job on Madison Avenue designing the first generation of 'singing' cards.  But those $5 to $15 Dover Books on art and architecture eventually became invaluable staples in her graduate education right through the doctorate in architectural history, in fact.


  1. Great informative post. I like to read your post very much. A big thanks for sharing with us !!

  2. I have owned many Dover books over the years — for me the classic always was String Figures and How To Make Them (my copy is the 1962 version of the 1906 original).

    ‘Lightning’ is a great figure to entertain the children...

  3. I've purchased a few Dover books, too. They hold up remarkably well over the years.
    I have a dual-language copy of Mencius, translated by James Legge. And a book on Cryptanalysis, or code-breaking before there were computers.
    Hey, RPS, did you make any interesting string figures?

    1. I have about 15 marked in yellow highlighter in the Table of Contents, which I guess was my main repertoire way back when. (The book includes 107 figures total.) A Sunset, A Sea-Snake, Bagobo Two Diamonds, Fence Around a Well, Lightning, A Butterfly, Leashing of Lochiel's Dogs, and Fighting Head Hunters were among my favorites. Osage Diamonds is probably the one I've done the most, and An Apache Door is very satisfying when you do it right. (These figures are almost all from the book's Chapter 2, the easy part.)

      Looks like I've had this book since February 1974, and despite a lot of use it’s still in one piece. 407 pages, it cost $2.50 at the time.

    2. I used to play a version of Cats Cradle that ended in a figure like your Bagobo Two Diamonds. I had no idea someone could give the figures colorful names and do a book!
      I wonder what the Leashing of Lochiel's Dogs could look like. The Fighting Head Hunters takes a good bit of imagination.
      Origami was more my thing. (Like Kofi Annam, I'm told).

    3. I wonder what the Leashing of Lochiel's Dogs could look like.

      Like this (see Fig. 267). As with the constellations, it helps to use your imagination. Anyway, they don't bite.

      p.s. I assume Lochiel was this guy.

  4. Thanks for reading, folks! All the histories on Dover explain that in its first decades, the company committed to non-yellowing papers and solid bindings, making all sorts of guarantees about the high quality of its products. They still have an easy return policy. I think Dover paperbacks of recent decades have a little less integrity, because the company has to find the right balance between affordability and quality. Paper stock alone rises in cost every year, just about, and took a huge hit in the 1970s when OSHA imposed necessary environmental limits on how stock was manufactured.
    --Karen Mulder (fake Anonymous!)

  5. Your post brought back fond memories of browsing that room in their offices (Vandam Street?) where they had a small room selling damaged/overstock copies for half price--I picked up all kinds of books I knew nothing about--never regretted the introduction they made to material I was unaware of, yet became quite essential somehow. I love Dover Books.

  6. Another fascinating post from the guest blogger! I never inquired about Dover Books and their mission, if you will. As someone who grew up during the switch from book catalogs of artifacts to online exhibitions, I am imagining Dover as showing the demand and importance of taking exhibitions and making them easily accessible. I'm also glad they're still making physical books despite cataloging now largely happening online. Hopefully that continues!

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